- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.

Before Tiger Woods, there was Willie Smith. In the 1899 U.S. Open at Baltimore Country Club, Smith 24 years old, just like Tiger lapped the field, winning the championship by 11 strokes. Years later, he took a job as the head pro at the Mexico City CC; in retrospect, it wasn't the greatest career move. During the Mexican Revolution, the club's buildings were badly shelled, and Smith, refusing to evacuate, sought refuge in the clubhouse basement. He was seriously wounded and died soon afterward.

Then there's Willie Anderson, another whose ghost was stirred by Woods' history-making at Pebble Beach this past week. Anderson, like Smith a transplanted Scot, shared the Open record for the largest 36-hole lead five shots at Baltusrol in 1903 until Tiger did him one better. He went on to capture the second of his four Opens that year, all by the age of 25, and his contemporaries considered him one of the greatest ball strikers of all time. Alas, he didn't make it to his 31st birthday. The death certificate said arteriosclerosis; those who knew him said he drank too much.

A revolution, some tragic flaw those are about the only things that can stop Tiger Woods right now. It's hard to imagine another golfer interfering with his march to immortality. Certainly no one currently on the scene is capable of keeping up with him of winning the Open by 15 strokes or the Masters by a dozen. What Tiger wants, Tiger gets, competition be damned.

Yesterday he kept company with one of the best young players in the world, two-time Open champ Ernie Els, and smoked him 67 to 72. Three weeks earlier, in the third round of the Memorial, the result had been essentially the same (Woods 65, Els 72). And Ernie seemed pumped for this pairing, too, even though Tiger was hopelessly ahead.

After shooting the best round of the day Saturday, a 68, he said, "I've had my run-ins with Tiger in the past, but I haven't had enough of those run-ins with him. I'd like to get [in] more of those battles with Tiger. I think it's definitely good for my game."

Run-ins? His run-in with Woods yesterday was more like a train wreck.

Not that anybody could have done much better. Sure, Vijay Singh shot a 68 and John Huston a 70, but they weren't playing with Tiger. They didn't have to watch him boom drives and stuff approach shots and drain putts all afternoon long. The man's talents are demoralizing. (When last seen, Els was bouncing a fairway wood off a tree on 18.)

Wood's fellow Americans all but surrendered to him at Pebble. The only one who made it on the leader board was John Huston, who came in fourth at 4 over, 16 back. Hal Sutton, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Justin Leonard none of them mounted a challenge. Davis Love didn't even make the cut. It was the foreign players Els, Jimenez, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Nick Faldo who showed the most resolve.

In fact, this Open had the strongest foreign flavor of any Open since 1913, Francis Ouimet's year, when the next six finishers Harry Vardon, Edward Ray, James Barnes, Walter Hagen, MacDonald Smith, Louis Tellier all were Europeans. Not to be ethnocentric or anything, but that's a pretty disturbing development.

Faldo offered this explanation for it: "The [links-style] course and the setup and all those things helped the European and International players. We're used to sort of bumping around in the wind and scrambling a lot. This wasn't target golf at all this week."

But it wasn't target golf at Pinehurst last year, either, and the foreigners didn't do nearly as well there. (Only Singh and Darren Clarke placed in the top 10.) Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if American players aren't a bit intimidated by Tiger at this point, for all their outward bravado. And they have good reason to be. Woods has now won 12 of his past 21 Tour events 57.1 percent. Shaquille O'Neal doesn't even shoot free throws that well.

And Tiger's performance in the Open extraordinary. Finishing 12 under when the next-best score was 3 over? Winning by 15 shots, the largest margin in a major ever? Making only seven bogeys (one a triple) in four rounds, none yesterday?

As my friend Michael Gee of the Boston Herald said, "The Red Sox will win the World Series a dozen times before we see this again."

Els was equally effusive. "Tiger meant business today, I'll tell you that," he said. "He was just awesome never in any kind of trouble. Who knows what he's going to do from here?"

Woods holds so many records already Masters records, Open records, money records that he's going to spend the next 20 years competing against himself in a lot of ways. It will be interesting to see if he can keep from getting bored. Breaking your own mark isn't quite as thrilling as breaking one set by Old Tom Morris in 1862. And unlike Jack Nicklaus, he has no Arnold Palmer to spur him to greater heights, just his own inner needs.

But Woods said "it's not necessarily keeping your competitive fire," that concerns him. "I'm not going to have any trouble with that," he insists. "It's just that you're going to go through periods when you're not playing well. Everybody does. You just hope they don't last too long."

Tiger went through a period like that not too long ago. He entered four tournaments and didn't win any of them, finishing second in the Players, fifth in the Masters, fourth in the Nelson and third in the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open. He seems to be over it now, though.

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