Wide Open Everyone wants to see Tiger battle Phil, but parity will be the theme of the week at bare and beautiful Shinnecock Hills

June 13, 2004

A buzz reverberated through the warm evening air last Thursday at
Muirfield Village Golf Club as thousands of spectators watched
the greatest player of his generation line up a 12-foot putt on
the 18th green. With his artificial hip and cranky back,
64-year-old Jack Nicklaus can no longer squat, so he bent his
left knee and crouched awkwardly behind the ball. After
determining the break, Nicklaus stood, moved over the ball and
settled into his familiar stance, holding the pose for what
seemed like an eternity as the rapt gallery at the Memorial
Tournament held its collective breath.

Finally he struck the ball, and there, on the Dublin, Ohio,
course that he designed, time stood still for the Golden Bear.
The putt rolled in, and it might as well have been 1972 again.
The ensuing roar drowned out the buzz of the millions of cicadas
that flitted through the air like a scene from a Bugs Gone Wild
video. Brushing away a few meaty insects, Nicklaus walked off the
green and through a gantlet of admirers. "One more year!" pleaded
a fan as Nicklaus, his head lowered, kept walking to the scorer's
hut, where he signed for his two-over-par 74.

Two days earlier, in the strongest terms yet, Nicklaus had said
that his playing career was over. And so two months after Arnold
Palmer bid farewell to the Masters, the game once again was
confronted with the loss of a legend. Such long-anticipated
goodbyes may perplex those who don't follow golf--Arnie, after
all, is 74 and had missed the cut at the Masters for the past 21
years--but the two departures come at a pivotal time for the
game. A week before the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club
in Southampton, N.Y., it is uncertain whether pro golf is
entering a new era of competitive excellence or headed toward a
cicadalike period of dormancy.

This much is abundantly clear: With each passing Grand Slam
event, Nicklaus's record of 18 victories in majors appears
increasingly formidable. Two years ago at Bethpage State Park,
only 60 miles west of Shinnecock Hills, Tiger Woods stomped the
U.S. Open field for his seventh win in 11 majors and appeared
destined to pass Nicklaus by decade's end. Since then Woods has
gone 0 for 7 with only two top 10 finishes, and his perch atop
the World Ranking looks as shaky as his once-vaunted swing.

When Woods was Microsoft and his competition other software
brands, fans and media complained about the lack of worthy
rivals. Now that Tiger has come back to the pack, three
players--World No. 2 Vijay Singh of Fiji (two majors),
third-ranked Ernie Els of South Africa (three) and, most enticing
of all, fifth-ranked Californian Phil Mickelson (a huge
one)--appear to be stepping forward to make a run at him, much as
Lee Trevino and Tom Watson challenged Nicklaus in the 1970s and

In the wake of his sublime, breakthrough victory over Els at
Augusta, Mickelson currently is the game's most compelling
figure. Having shed his can't-win-the-big-one ball and chain,
will Lefty begin his own Tigeresque streak at Shinnecock? Or will
he go the way of former world No. 1 David Duval, who since
winning his sole major, the 2001 British Open, has receded so far
into the golfing netherworld that he has become as invisible as
Dana Carvey?

As Masterly as Mickelson was at Augusta, his performance there
should not be viewed as a guarantee of sustained success. Rich
Beem's victory at the 2002 PGA Championship began an
unprecedented streak of six consecutive first-time winners in
majors--Mike Weir ('03 Masters), Jim Furyk ('03 U.S. Open), Ben
Curtis ('03 British), Shaun Micheel ('03 PGA) and Mickelson. Of
the six, Beem, Curtis and Micheel have the look of one-hit
wonders. Call it the NFL-ization of the PGA Tour, with anyone
capable of being the '03 Carolina Panthers. After all, on any
given Sunday.... "It's wide-open," says veteran pro Tommy Armour
III. "To me it's a beautiful thing. Golf is a fair game, where
everybody starts every week at even par, and [the streak of
first-time winners] simply shows that anything's possible."

Surprise winners add texture to the Tour and make for nice story
lines, but too many fans still have a Tiger fetish. When Woods
tees it up, television ratings are generally 50% higher than when
he takes the week off. Over the last two years ratings are down
nearly 20% even when Tiger is playing, which leads to the
question: Is the game, like Woods, also going through something
of a slump? Many parts of the country are overbuilt with courses,
yet participation levels across the U.S. have not kept up with
the building, and since 2000 the number of avid golfers--those
who play at least 25 rounds a year--has declined 8%.

Anxiety about the state of the game could be eased by a
Woods-Mickelson duel at Shinnecock Hills, but now, for the first
time, there's a legitimate suspicion that the guy in the bloodred
shirt can no longer get it done on the Sundays that matter most.
Heart, creativity and exceptional putting have kept Woods near
the top of the money list this year--he finished a shot out of a
playoff twice and won the World Match Play in February--but he
hasn't taken a stroke-play tournament since last October, and the
fear factor that once gripped his chief competitors is long gone.

So, too, is Tiger's magic touch. Last year, after Mickelson
claimed that Woods was playing with "inferior equipment," Woods's
relative lack of length (he finished '03 11th in driving
distance) was up for discussion. This year the issue is accuracy.
Woods has been about as proficient off the tee as Shaq has been
at the free throw line. In 2000, the year Tiger won nine Tour
events, including the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA, Woods
hit the fairway 71.2% of the time; so far this season he's been
in the short grass on only 56.4% of his drives and is ranked
161st on Tour. That figure bodes ill on any U.S. Open layout, but
particularly so at Shinnecock Hills, which recently completed a
massive restoration. Thousands of trees and truckloads of hedges
and underbrush were removed from the course, exposing players to
the full effect of the fierce southerlies off Shinnecock Bay.

Woods insists that his struggles can be attributed to the fickle
nature of the game and that he's "very close" to getting his
swing where he wants it to be. In the meantime the swing doctors
have been throwing verbal haymakers. Noted instructor Jim McLean
told Golf World in April that Woods's swing has degenerated under
the influence of Tiger buddy Mark O'Meara and coach Hank Haney.
Butch Harmon, the coach with whom Woods severed ties after his
victory at Bethpage, dismissed speculation that he and his former
pupil would reunite, recently telling Golfweek, "I have no desire
to go back to the same situation where I spend all my time at
tournaments with Tiger Woods.... I sat in that hot seat for 10
years, and now someone else can sit in it."

As always, all eyes will be on Woods at Shinnecock. Well, most of
them. After making an appearance on Long Island the day before
the Open to promote Sebonack Golf Club, a course he codesigned
with Tom Doak, Nicklaus will make like a cicada and take wing--to
attend to various business interests. Asked last Friday if he
planned to watch the Open on TV, Nicklaus said, "I might happen
to see a few minutes of it walking by a set."

What might he miss? The answer is blowing in the wind.

Complete U.S. Open coverage, including the Underground Golfer by
SI's Gary Van Sickle, can be found at si.com/golf.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH OUT OF THE WOODS Thousands of trees have been removed from Shinnecock Hills, including the serpentine 16th, since its last U.S. Open, in 1995. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN SWING VOTE Masters champ Mickelson (left) is the pick over Woods, who is suffering through an 0-for-7 run in majors. COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK PARTY LINE Woods insists that his game is close, but wild tee shots are driving him crazy. COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK TWO COLOR PHOTOS: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID WALBERG (2) COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT E. HUDSON/ICON SMI THREE COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID BERGMAN COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL


The U.S. Open winner will be the golfer who can deal with wind,
is in top form, has experienced Open pressure, can cope with New
York fans and has that intangible something it takes to win a
major. Here's who could be on the leader board on Sunday. --Gary
Van Sickle


He's from Texas, for crissakes

Sharp. Came from behind at Bay Hill; a near miss at

Still learning. Missed cut in three of four

Smiles a lot. (People like that)

Ballstriking is off the charts, but is putter up to major

Will definitely win the Open--someday


Euro tour vet can handle all climates

Two wins this year, plus heartbreaker at Augusta

Has won two Opens, but missed cut at Shinny in '95

Sorry, Ray--everyone really loves Ernie

Known for syrupy swing but has terrific short game

With Tiger slumping--sorry, "close"--Ernie is a cofavorite


Creative type says, Let it blow

Done with swing fixes--Nelson was first Tour win in 28

Wilted in final-round duel with Tiger in '02

Locals haven't forgotten his, uh, hand gesture at

Can make like Melina Mercouri on greens--Never on

Better prepared to win a big one than he was two years


He's from Ireland. Need we say more?

Excellent. Second in Germany after two top fives in U.S.

Three top 10s

Nicest guy on Euro tour, and "Irish" plays well on the East

Cerebral--and slow--player who can be too smart for his own

Always a top five threat in any major


Can scramble in any weather

Good. Solid 24th at power-packed Memorial

Yikes! This is his first Open

He's not on public's radar despite BellSouth win in April

Any guy who can putt this well is always dangerous

Needs more seasoning


Doesn't love it but can handle it

Seconds at Match Play and Honda but one top 20 since Augusta

Three-putted final green to miss '96 playoff; fourth in

Will New York fans focus on his rabbit ears or his '97 PGA win?

It's been seven long years since that '97 rainbow at Winged

So much talent, yet only one major. Ultimate underachiever


No worries. It's that Texas thing

A fifth at Wachovia, ninth at Colonial in the last month

Short-hitter made surprising run at Tiger at Bethpage

Some love due for guy who caught own bunker shot at '03

Hasn't been much of a closer

Right Open style--all fairways and greens, all the time


Kryptonite to this high hitter

Seems to have recovered from Masters hangover

Fourth at Shinny during Wild Child phase in 1995

The Neo-Arnie, but has lost underdog appeal

Switch from power to control perfect for Open

Was best pro sans major; soon to be halfway to Grand Slam?


Likes it about as much as he likes media

Wins this year at Pebble Beach, Houston and New Orleans

Five top 10s in 10 starts

Nope. Had fan kicked out at Olympia Fields last year

Can a guy with a bellyputter really handle Open greens?

Plays better when Tiger's not around


Excelled in windy Memphis

He's hot, hot hot--blistered the FedEx field by six shots

Enough. Played in seven Opens; fifth at Olympia Fields

Nice guy, but New Yorkers won't recognize him

After LSU's BCS title, everything else is gravy for him

Straight off the tee, solid on the greens--profile of an Open


Canadian's right at home in a cold wind

Shaky. Cracked top 20 once since winning in L.A. in February

Chased winner Jim Furyk last year, finishing third

Yes, especially if they're Islanders fans

Streaky player who can get hot in a hurry

Like Furyk, he has the game and the grit to swipe an Open


No prob. Still No. 1 shotmaker

Big prob: Can't find the fairway

He's only won two of the last four

He's Tiger, da man! He'll always be the headliner

Like Nicklaus, seldom misses a putt that matters

Driver issues unresolved. Does cut streak (123 events) end

Call it the NFL-ization of the Tour, with anyone capable of being
the '03 Carolina Panthers.

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