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A Welcome Change in the Majors

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Tiger Woods
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It was not an easy summer for Tiger Woods. (.)

Perched one-two atop the world rankings and the money list, wouldn't you think they'd be the merriest of men? But for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson this has been The Summer of Their Discontent.

Both players build their entire season's play with the four major championships as the focal points, and for Tiger this has been his most disastrous stretch since turning pro. In his last three - the PGA, the British Open and the U.S. Open - he was never even in contention. Indeed, in the PGA he had to make two miraculous long putts to even make the 36-hole cut. Overall he was 1-over par for the combined three major events. For the three previous majors he was 53-under.

For Mickelson, poor soul, the summer of 2001 was simply another chapter in a saga of frustration. But it does seem to be getting better. As the curtain came down on this year's majors, he just missed by one stroke at the PGA.

All in all, it was an interesting championship season. Woods gave it an historical beginning with a victory in the Masters that made him the first player ever to hold all four major titles at one time. There were some who wanted to call this the first modern Grand Slam, but it didn't fly. Tiger's string involved a carryover of three titles from 2000. The Slam, most agreed, was legitimate only if all four majors were won in the same year. But it was a notable achievement, and one, which may never be duplicated.

After Augusta, he seemed to lose the spark. Perhaps the magnitude of the accomplishment simply overwhelmed him. As usual, he prepared meticulously for the next three big ones. In Tiger's book, the majors are the ones he really sets his sights on. The PGA Championship provided an additional incentive; he was shooting for his third PGA title in a row. But he was never in it. He missed fairways, blew easy putts, and came this close to not making the cut for the first time in his pro career. He finished in a nine-way tie for 29th, 1-under par.

"You can't win every time you go out there," was the way he summarized it. And that's golf in a nutshell. But his fans don't want to believe that! With Tiger not knocking over the pins, many of the lads back in the pack took heart, and suddenly we had a fresh face in the winner's circle of the U.S. Open and a foreigner, at that. Retief Goosen of Sweden, who was labeled "The Goose" by American fans almost immediately, survived a meltdown on the 72nd hole and eventually won the championship.

It was easily one of the most memorable, if shocking, incidents of the year and unique in U.S. Open history. Goosen and Stewart Cink, also dubbed a "nobody" by the gallery, arrived at the 72nd hole tied for the lead. Cink double bogied from 12 to drop back to 3-under.

Goosen, who had a losing record in three previous events on the PGA Tour, missed his first putt from 12 feet. Now he had an 18-inch laugher left for the title. He missed, and the gasps could be heard to the very limits of Southern Hills. When he finally got the ball in the hole, it left him in a tie with Mark Brooks, who had finished at 4-under only minutes earlier with three putts on the 18th. To add another dimension to the script, Brooks was already in the locker room, preparing to head home. And that's where Cink headed after his disaster.

The 18-hole playoff on Monday produced little excitement until Goosen began to wobble again near the finish line. He bogied both the 17th and the 18th, but Brooks' poor outgoing nine had given Goosen some cushion. He prevailed, 70-72.

It was definitely a change of pace from the U.S. Opens of recent years, dominated by the record-breaking play of Tiger. Goosen, 32, doesn't quite fit that mold as the new national champion, but there is nothing shabby about his game. He has been a winner on the European Tour, ranging near the top of its Order of Merit. But he's never been better than 44th in the world ranking. We're sure to see more of him here, now that he's sporting our crown.

The British Open shaped up as a three-way battle between Woods, David Duval and Mickelson. And it had special interest since both Duval and Mickelson were trying desperately to rid themselves of the curse of being "the best players never to win a major championship." It was a stimulating scramble at Royal Lytham, and some had a good time simply watching the furious changes in the scoreboard. At one point in the last round, eight were tied for third.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson got into the hunt, but Duval made it the tournament of his life. Taking charge on the weekend with remarkable scores of 65 and 67 on a tough track made more difficult by the shifting winds, Duval finally got the monkey off his back. He had his first major, and the British fans, who had encouraged him all the way, finally got him to smile and wave an appreciative greeting.

Tiger finished T-25, Mickelson, T-30. But it was a British Open that will be talked about again and again, and likely called "The Duval British Open." If a writer sat down to do a script on the final major of the year, he would have cast Mickelson in the heroic role of following Duval to the podium for his victor's wreath. He'd be a heartless fellow if he didn't. And that's the way the gallery wanted it to play out, too. And it almost did.

Since the early days of the year, Mickelson had felt 2001 would be his breakthrough year. He worked hard on his game, although he already had the best all-around game on the tour, according to most analysts. And he also worked on his head, which has gotten him into so much difficulty in the past. And on the eve of the PGA Championship, he was brimming with confidence.

Understandably, he was a focal point for the press, and, also understandably, they wondered if he had any specific plan or routing for fending off his disastrous last round crashes. Basically, the big left-hander is mild-mannered and patient, and he responded to the irritating probing in considerable detail.

He talked about thinking calm thoughts when the going got rough, and again and again he mentioned how some of these things could reduce his tension or nervousness. Indeed, he said this so often I began to believe that the problem of tension and nervousness was so firmly imbedded in his mind that it might not be leaving him any time soon.

In the early going of the PGA, Mickelson's play was crisp and defiant of the tricky Atlanta A.C. spread, and there was a feeling that this could be IT. The gallery grasped it, too, and they rooted lustily for Lefty, who had scored a number of earlier triumphs on Georgia courses.

Yes, the setting seemed ideal. Woods' charge for a three-peat PGA never developed, and The Goose showed no signs of following up on his surprise breakthrough at Royal Lytham. But now there was another "nobody" in Mickelson's path. This was David Toms, a 34-year-old Louisianan who refused to play like he was 34th on the PGA money list.

He had attracted some attention on the PGA Tour from time to time, but with a big one in his sights, now he battled Mickelson to a standstill. Quickly developing into a two-man battle, the lead changed hands numerous times, and at the start of the final round, Toms had a one-shot edge.

It marked the seventh time Mickelson had gone to the last hole of a major within two shots of the lead, but now he showed determination in every move. That is until the 16th. Facing a simple two-putt 50-footer, Mickelson's mind came into play. While setting up for his lag, Phil heard some voices from the gallery say that the putt wasn't as slow as it appeared. Talking about it later, Mickelson said he tried to block out the gallery coaching, but admitted he probably gave the stroke an extra nudge. It went 8 feet past the hole, and he missed it for a bogie that really destroyed his chances.

Of course Toms won it with a gutsy putt on the 18th, while Mickelson was, once again, just missing.

This year's majors were a refreshing change of pace, with a couple of new challengers to take on Tiger and encouragement for others to step forward.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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