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Wanted: Someone to Challenge The Tiger!

By John M. Ross,
Golf Swing
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Can no one step up to the tee and challenge Tiger Woods. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

Now that Tiger Woods has convinced everyone that he's as good as everyone has been saying, will golf ever be the same? Not likely.

Woods left the field of the 100th U.S. Open as well as the vaunted Pebble Beach Golf Links in a shambles as he breezed to the most one-sided triumph in the long history of the event. Broadcasters and writers grasped - and gasped - for words to convey the scope of the spectacular onslaught that saw Tiger break or tie 15 records - one that dates back to the legendary Old Tom Morris.

Woods, of course, is only 24 years old, and his improvement seems to be on a definite upward curve - meaning he's gong to get even better. And that must have his competitors - if that is the right word - trembling at the thought of trying to get a winner's check with him in the field.

Woods' romp over the storied California course was something to see, and millions did. Indeed, the telecast on NBC attracted the highest Nielsen ratings since they started measuring audiences in 1975. The viewer saw history in the making - and it will likely stay on the books for years to come. But was it exciting sports entertainment? Not really. I've been looking at the U.S. Open since Arnie Palmer first assembled his troops, and I would have to put this one far down the list in terms of drama and excitement.

This is not to say that Tiger's uncanny 12 under par on one of the world's toughest courses wasn't something to relish. There simply was no competition. No one made a run at the Tiger; the rest of the field settled back and played for second place. It was almost like watching two different tournaments.

In the days before the event, the handicappers touted at least a half dozen players capable of challenging Woods. Phil Mickelson, who snapped Woods' win streak earlier in the year, was up near the top of the list. The southpaw had racked up three impressive tournament wins and was right on Tiger's heels on the money list, and his practice sessions indicated he'd be ready for Pebble. He wobbled home in a tie for 16th place, some 21 strokes behind Woods.

Hal Sutton, who beat Tiger in the Players Championship, had a legion of supporters. They liked his inspirational cry to his fellow Tiger chasers: "Come on, fellows, we can play golf with this guy." He finished tied for 22nd, 23 shots back.

David Duval, once a slot ahead of Woods in the World Rankings after notching 11 wins in 34 starts, seemed ready to snap out of a recent slump. He wasn't. He tied for eighth, 19 strokes behind.

The foreign delegation loomed as a strong threat with Lee Westwood, who beat Tiger in Germany earlier, Ernie Els, Miguel Angel Jiminez, Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, Vijay Singh, the Masters winner, and the persistent Colin Montgomery. The last has been Europe's leading player for the past five years, but has never won in the U.S. Els and Jiminez came home deadlocked for second place. The others were back in the pack - except Parnevik, who failed to make the cut.

At one point, it looked as if Els, a two-time Open winner who can challenge Tiger's distance off the tee, might be ready to make a heroic run. He had a 68 in the third round, the only score under par on a very windy day, and it brought him to within ten shots of the lead. But he limped home with a 72 while Woods was blazing to the finish line with a 67, and an all-time winning edge of 15, yes 15, strokes.

When Tiger first shocked the golf world in 1997 by winning the Masters by 12 strokes, onlookers shook their heads in disbelief. But, as we indicated at the start, he seems to be getting better all the time.

Analysts of the play at Pebble claim Woods got a big jump on the field with some luck with his tee times in the first two rounds. Weather conditions, always a factor at Pebble, in this case wind, rain and fog, hit a substantial portion of the field, but Tiger lucked out. The luck of the draw brought him reasonably good weather each time and he shot 65-69 for a six-stroke lead. He got caught in the heavy winds on Saturday, but he still managed a par 71 - bettered only by Jiminez' 68. It was good weather for everyone on Sunday, but by that time Woods was nearly uncatchable.

If some kind of competition for the Tiger doesn't develop soon, his tournaments are likely to become monotonous runaways. During Jack Nicklaus' domination of the game for nearly two decades, he had challengers coming at him in waves, and that's what made it such an exciting period for the game.

First, he had to dispose of Palmer, and he did that quickly, in his first Open as a pro in 1962. And it was memorable, since it was in Arnie's own backyard at Oakmont, and in a playoff. Lee Trevino came along and beat out Jack in two U.S. Opens, and then chipped in to catch him at Muirfield in the British Open.

Young Johnny Miller was next, and for a time he looked as if he would take over Jack's dominant role. But the Golden Bear budged only a little. Right on Miller's heels was Tom Watson, pursuing Jack at every turn and finally catching him with that miraculous chip from the rough at Pebble for the 1982 Open title.

Also in pursuit were the foreigners, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle. And here and there other tough battlers lurked - Tom Weiskopf, Billy Casper, Ray Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, among others. It was no cakewalk for the Bear, but he managed to win 18 major championships and set many of the records Tiger Woods is now challenging.

In only his fifth year as a pro, Woods has won 20 times in his starts on the PGA Tour. And in this short period, he has amassed prize money of more than $16 million, making him the all-time leader at age 24.

On top of this, he has money coming at him in all directions for endorsements, exhibitions, etc. He's given a huge shot in the arm to the golf industry, attracting young people to the game as well as minority groups that never paid much attention to golf before. But there could be a budding problem there, too.

He's becoming so popular and so heavily commercialized that the game could become over-Tigerized. The golf publications are loaded with his ads. The telecasts, in addition to covering his play totally, jump in every few minutes with Tiger commercials. It does get heavy at times.

Ideally, what Tiger - and the game - needs at this point is a challenge from someone like the young Spanish whiz, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia. But how lucky can we get?

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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