- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. British bookmakers have installed Tiger Woods as an 11-4 favorite for this week's 100th U.S. Open championship. Woods' record over the last year would suggest that even those practically prohibitive odds are somewhat conservative.

Quite simply over the last year, Woods has played the best golf the game has seen in five decades. Starting at last year's Memorial, he has won 11 times in 20 starts and recorded 17 top-five finishes. That means Woods has been out of the Sunday mix just three times in the last year. No player in modern history can boast such a run of dominance. When Byron Nelson won 11 consecutive events in 1945, half of the game's top names were overseas on Uncle Sam's payroll. Jack Nicklaus never had such a streak, nor did Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Johnny Miller.

"The way Tiger has played is unbelievable. He has a chance to win every week," Paraguay's Carlos Franco said. "Some guys, they are jealous. They [downplay] his success. But you have to give him total respect. He's twice as good as the rest of us. He has proved that in the last year."

He has proved it at a time when the game is healthier and PGA tour fields are deeper than they have ever been. And he's only 24. Most of the game's greats compiled their dossiers of dominance between the ages of 27 and 37 (see chart). Are we to believe that Woods hasn't even reached his prime? That in coming years his victories-to-starts percentage might actually climb above the logic-twisting 55 percent he has managed over the last year?

"It would be nice if it was 100 percent," said Woods yesterday with a smile and a wink. "But realistically, that's probably a little far-fetched. But I feel like if I can keep putting myself in position enough times, my wins will come."

Those picayune enough to question Woods' ridiculous early-career resume are quick to point out that he has but two major titles to his credit. Woods has been the favorite in all but one of the 12 Grand Slam starts he has made since scorching the field and Augusta National at the 1997 Masters. Aside from last year's uprising at the PGA Championship and a pair of thirds at the 1998 British Open and last year's U.S. Open, he hasn't even factored into the back-nine drama in those 12 starts as golf's staple stallion. Many point to this major inconsistency and scoff at Woods' chances of ever equaling Nicklaus' record 18 of majors. But consider the fact that the Golden Bear amassed only three major nuggets before his 25th birthday. A win in one of the season's final three slams would put Woods right back in the Bear's tracks.

"It's viable [for me to think I can catch Nicklaus], definitely," Woods said. "You're not going to win every one, and obviously Jack proved that with 19 seconds in the majors. There are times when you are going to beat everybody down the stretch. There are times they're going to give you the major, and other times a person is going to flat outplay you. But the key is to put yourself there, time and time again, on the back nine on Sunday."

Woods did just that last year at Pinehurst. After four lackluster performances in the Slam that would seem the least susceptible to his skills, Woods worked himself into contention on Sunday's back nine at Pinehurst No. 2, missed a critical six-footer for par at the 17th and finished two strokes behind eventual champion Payne Stewart in a tie for third with Vijay Singh.

"At least I'm heading in the right direction [at the Open]," said Woods, attributing his poor play in previous Open starts to the vagaries of youth. "I think it's a natural progression of learning the game of golf. I guess like any teen-ager, I thought I knew everything… . It took me time to truly believe that you can't attack an Open setup. This is a grinder's event where you have to accept pars and even bogeys and hope the birdies come… . Honestly, I've always thought I would be a good Open player, because my mind is the strongest part of my game."

In many respects, Pebble Beach should suit Woods' game better than any recent Open site. Not only did he win on the layout at the AT&T; Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, but he hits a lower-trajectory shot with the Nike ball he switched to before last month's German Open, a definite advantage entering what is certain to be a blustery week on the Monterey Peninsula.

On the negative side of the ledger, Pebble Beach isn't likely to play favorites with the game's prodigious hitters at only 6,846 yards long. Augmenting the layout's potential taste for a short-and-straight player, the USGA scrapped its initial plan to maintain the rough at a relatively benign three inches less than a month ago. They have added an inch to the primary cut and subtracted most of the creativity stronger players like Woods would have been able to display from a less sadistic stand of rough.

"I think it would have been more fun to see players have some options out of the rough, but the USGA has its reasons, so we'll be chopping out most of the time after mis-hits from the tee," Woods said.

But in general, Woods seems totally relaxed, responding to questions yesterday with a certain who's-going-to-finish-second air of confidence. He spent last week at Pebble playing and practicing with swing guru Butch Harmon, so he's totally familiar with the rigorous course setup. And he seems unfazed by the stress of expectation that surrounds him at every major. He claims to pay no attention to the external pressure placed on him by media and fans, and he embraces on-course pressure like few players before him.

"Some guys crack under pressure, Tiger thrives on it," Harmon said. "He lives for the rush he gets when he's in the mix on Sunday and the pressure's on. That's when he's totally in his element."

For the past 12 months, Woods has found that element every time he has found the first tee.

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