The fluid yet powerful swing was, as always, to die for, like
something out of an instructional manual, although Tiger Woods
said later, "I half shanked that shot." No matter. His ball flew
into the trees to the right of the par-3 8th green at Muirfield
Village Golf Club last Saturday, caromed off a limb and settled
on the green about 20 feet from the hole--closer to the
flagstick than the lovely shot struck by Steve Jones moments
earlier. Woods dropped his club and laughed. Jones walked to the
end of the tee box, turned and bowed to Woods. At the green
Jones ceremoniously bent over and inspected Woods's ball, then
said for all to hear, "Now you know why we can't beat the son of
a gun!" The crowd roared in laughter. So did Woods.
For the first time in four years, however, Woods didn't get the
last laugh at the slightly-less-rain-soaked-than-usual Memorial,
Jack Nicklaus's tournament in Dublin, Ohio. There was no joy in
Mudville. Mighty Tiger had struck out. Woods made the putt after
the carom shot for an unlikely birdie. (For those keeping score
at home, that goes down as a barkie.) Unfortunately for him,
that was his only birdie of the third round. Woods, coming off a
European tour win in Germany the previous week and trying to
scratch his name into the record book with Walter Hagen and Gene
Sarazen as the only players to win the same tournament four
years in a row, was never a factor at Muirfield Village. A
final-round 66 lifted him to 22nd, his worst finish in a
stroke-play event this year. (He shared 33rd after losing to
Peter O'Malley in the first round of February's Accenture World
Woods had so thoroughly dominated the Memorial during his
previous three wins that this year The Columbus Dispatch ceded
him the title before the tournament began. "Today's opening
round begins four days of coronation, not competition," the
paper announced in the best Dewey-beats-Truman tradition. It was
true, though, that everyone at Muirfield Village was geared up
for Tiger Jam IV, so much so that Jim Furyk, who won with a
Sunday charge that included a holed bunker shot for eagle,
jokingly told reporters, "You're probably happy to see a new
face up here." Now that you mention it, Jimbo....
Don't worry, though, we'll be seeing plenty more of Woods when
he resurfaces in a couple of weeks at Bethpage Black for the
June 13-16 U.S. Open. (Woods considered entering this week's
Kemper Insurance Open. When he said on May 22 that there was a
50-50 chance he'd play, the tournament reportedly sold 10,000
tickets the next day.)
Woods's dominance is such that the main story line from now
until play gets under way at Bethpage will be his pursuit of
golf's Holy Grail, the Grand Slam. Or had you forgotten who had
joined Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only back-to-back Masters
champions last month? Just because Woods took last week off from
his duties as the game's designated juggernaut, don't think he's
not still on track for an unprecedented major sweep. Woods made
only seven birdies in the first three rounds at Muirfield
Village, but blame that on jet lag (although he refused to).
Woods won a playoff against Colin Montgomerie in Germany on
Monday, May 20, then flew home to Orlando that night before
heading to Columbus on Wednesday, May 22. "Two days isn't much
time to recover," said two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.
You could also blame Tiger's troubles on the greens at Muirfield
Village. Going into the final round of the Memorial, Woods
ranked 74th in putting out of the 75 players who made the cut.
He regained his touch on Sunday, making seven birdies, which
doubled his week's output, and looked ready to make some more
history. He didn't get his four-peat, but he did run his streak
of consecutive cuts made to 88, which leaves him about a year
and a half from one of Byron Nelson's most formidable records
(113). First, though, comes the annual hunt for the big prize.
"For years, talk of a Grand Slam has been laughable, ridiculed,"
says Brad Faxon. "Now it's something you've got to think about.
Tiger has won four majors in a row and the first one this year.
Nothing is out of his reach. Nobody's been able to handle
pressure like this guy. I'm a believer: He's better than anybody
who's ever played the game."
When the subject of the Grand Slam was broached with Nicklaus
two years ago, he pooh-poohed the notion, saying it wasn't fair
to put that kind of a burden on Woods. Last week Nicklaus
changed his tune. "It's very realistic for Tiger," he said. "The
courses don't matter. These guys hit the ball so far, it's
simply a matter of how many putts they make. It's not the same
game I played."
Nicklaus said he began to think seriously about the Grand Slam
in the mid-1960s. "I'd won all four majors by '66," he said.
"After that I got so depressed if I didn't win the Masters that
I'd play poorly for a couple of months. I probably ruined four
or five seasons until I realized how stupid that was, that the
U.S. and British Opens and the PGA were important tournaments
Two majors in a year was as close as Nicklaus came to the Slam.
His best chance was in '72. He won the first two legs but was
bothered by a sore neck during the British Open at Muirfield and
finished second, by a stroke, to Lee Trevino. In '75 Nicklaus
wound up just three strokes shy of a possible Slam. He won the
Masters and the PGA but missed the playoff in the U.S. Open by
two shots--bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes during the final
round at Medinah stick in his memory--and the playoff at the
British Open by one.
Right now the major-championship scoreboard looks like this:
Nicklaus 20, Woods 10. Or if you don't count the U.S. Amateur:
Nicklaus 18, Woods 7. Either way, Woods is only 26, still
improving and definitely in the passing lane. He has won six of
the last 10 majors, including the Tiger Slam--all four
consecutively, but not in the same year. Jack's record looks as
if it's perched next to a row of dominoes, and he knows it. "I
think he'll pass me," Nicklaus says. "As long as he keeps his
interest, and he's very committed to what he's doing."
An informal survey of players last week found that no one has
ruled out a Woods Grand Slam this year. Most of the players
surveyed said the three remaining venues--Bethpage; Muirfield
for the July 18-21 British Open; and Hazeltine National, outside
Minneapolis, for the Aug. 15-18 PGA Championship--perfectly suit
Woods. "His chances are darned good this year," says John Cook.
"Bethpage Black is about 8,000 yards [7,214, actually] and
par-70. Unless it's firm and fast, that's going to eliminate
lots of guys. Muirfield is right up Tiger's alley, and
Hazeltine, good God, is another one with 1,000-yard par-4s, and
par-5s that are unreachable except for about four guys."
Bethpage, hosting its first major, is a total unknown, but Woods
said he planned to sneak in for a visit sometime before the
Open. Muirfield last hosted the British Open in 1992, when Nick
Faldo edged Cook, and at 6,963 yards is considered to be a
course for shotmaking, another Woods forte. Hazeltine National
is considerably longer now (7,360 yards) than when it last held
a major, the 1991 U.S. Open, which was won by Payne Stewart at
"Hazeltine's going to favor the long hitter, for sure," says Tim
Herron, a Minnesotan. The PGA of America says par will be 72,
and three of the four par-5s will be longer than 580 yards,
including the monstrous 3rd, a 636-yarder. Tom Lehman, another
native son, says the par-3s are the best holes at Hazeltine, but
he agrees with Herron. "The best players hit it so straight
now," he says, "I don't see short hitters doing anything in the
big tournaments anymore."
Aside from shotmaking and length, what sets Woods apart is his
focus. "We're seeing a once-in-a-generation player, maybe even
more than that," says Cook. "He's stronger emotionally than
anyone else, and there's not much that he has to stress over.
Getting from the locker room to the practice tee and then back
to the 1st tee, that's the most stressful time in his life."
Woods didn't have to follow in Nicklaus's footsteps during the
final round of the Memorial--he played in the twosome
immediately ahead of the 62-year-old tournament host. Nicklaus's
week had gone well. He decided to enter his own tournament at
the last minute and then opened with a surprising one-under 71,
his best 18 in a regular Tour event in two years. That put him
three shots ahead of Woods. After making the cut with a 74 on
Friday (to Tiger's 70), Nicklaus put up another 71 in the third
round while Woods shot a 72. Nicklaus needled Woods on the
practice range while they were warming up on Sunday. "I told him
that I'd give him a little room to get out in front of us so I
wouldn't drive into him," Nicklaus said.
What gas Nicklaus had left, he left on the range. He stumbled
home with a 79, hitting three shots into the water on the front
nine. "[My wife] shook me at seven this morning to get up, and I
didn't move," Nicklaus said later. "I was really tired. It's the
first time in a year I can remember not getting up in the night
to go to the bathroom."
Woods said he planned to go home and relax for a while, evaluate
what parts of his game need work and then draw up a plan for
Bethpage. As for last week's good finish after a poor start,
Woods said, "I felt as if I wasn't very far off."
What a coincidence. Neither is the U.S. Open.
dominoes, and he knows it. "I think he'll pass me," Jack says.