- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. The principal pre-tournament question circulating around Augusta National isn't whether Tiger Woods will win this week's 65th Masters, but whether that victory would constitute a Grand Slam. That's the ultimate testament to the strength of Woods' death grip on the golf world.

Only Woods could turn the game's most prestigious tournament into a semantics debate.

"Slam or no Slam, Tiger is so talented and so dominant that people aren't even waiting until after the tournament to answer the question," six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week.

Nicklaus, and most other players on the property, don't think a fourth consecutive major title for Woods would qualify as an official Grand Slam because the 25-year-old phenom would not have won all four legs of the coveted quartet in the same calendar year. But Woods, who put together one of the most remarkable seasons in history last year by winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship by a staggering combined total of 23 strokes, begs to differ.

"I am not going to deny that it is harder to accomplish a Grand Slam in one year," Woods said, in response to Nicklaus and others. "There's no doubt about that. But if you can put all four trophies on your coffee table [at the same time], I think you can make a pretty good case for that. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and their own views upon life, and obviously my views are slightly different than theirs."

Nicklaus credits Augusta National founder Bobby Jones with the only Slam in history, a notion that understandably suits the greencoats just fine. Jones, of course, won the four most prominent championships of his day (U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur) in 1930. And almost everyone present other than Woods agrees with the Golden Bear's assessment of the situation.

"Tiger will be holding all four titles if he wins here, but a Grand Slam happens in one year, not two," said defending champion Vijay Singh, the last player other than Woods to stand in the winner's circle at a major.

But if there is a certain amount of debate over the precise definition of what constitutes a Grand Slam, there is no debate over what a fourth consecutive major championship victory would mean for Woods.

"You'd have to call it the best run in the history of the game, wouldn't you?" Ireland's Darren Clarke said. "Obviously, nobody in the modern era of the majors [since 1934] has ever won four straight… . I think if [Tiger] wins this week and holds all four, he can decide whatever he wants to decide… . He can call it whatever he damn well pleases."

Despite Woods' long-term concern for his legacy, he claims he won't carry any Slam concerns with him to the first tee tomorrow. And despite the 5-4 odds (according to Ladbrokes) that make him the most prohibitive tournament favorite in golf history, Woods says he feels little pressure.

"Do I feel the burden of it? No. It's not life or death," Woods said. "But I absolutely love coming out here and competing and playing. I love to be able to put myself in contention, coming down the stretch on the back nine and having to execute a golf shot. Your nerves are fluttering a little bit, your eyeballs are beating, palms are sweating and it's fun to be able to experience that and somehow be able to control it and pull off a shot."

Nobody has come close to pulling off as many shots, under stress or otherwise, as Woods over the last year. And after beginning this season with a five-tournament "drought" that resulted in a heap of hyperbolic chatter from the media, Woods has awakened to claim titles in back-to-back starts at Bay Hill and the Players Championship, accelerating into Masters week like a stallion among Shetlands.

"My problem [at the beginning of the season] I think is that I played too much at the end of last year," Woods said. "I played eight consecutive weeks, traveled more than 27,000 miles on four different continents and that put a toll on my body. I came out [early this season], and I wasn't, unfortunately, as energetic as I should have been… . Now I feel I'm almost back in the same form I found in the middle of last year."

The world has seen Woods in top form at Augusta National once before. In 1997, Woods broke every meaningful tournament record at the Masters, pulverizing the field with an 18-under total of 270 on the layout. Frighteningly for his challengers, Woods is now a vastly more mature player. He spent last week at home in Orlando, Fla., resting and working with swing coach Butch Harmon on his trajectory control. And if he can put together one more week of prodigious drives, carefully flighted irons and clutch putts, it will take an epic effort to keep him from cementing the most spectacular run in the game's history.

"If Tiger plays his game and holes a few putts, then there's no stopping him," three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said yesterday. "He proved that beyond doubt last year. I'd say 5-4 is about right for him amazing it's come to that. Staggering, really."

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