- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

During the second round of the Australian Open last December, Greg Norman and Robert Allenby were walking down the 14th fairway at Kingston Heath, shooting the breeze, when Norman asked Allenby what tournaments he was going to play in this year. He got an answer he wasn't expecting.

"I want to play in the ones Tiger Woods plays," Allenby replied, "because I want to beat him."

Norman was duly impressed. And when Allenby won the Australian PGA the next week, the Shark couldn't help telling people of his countryman's plans. "Over in the United States we've seen a lot of guys getting a little bit intimidated by Mr. Woods," he said. "To hear that coming from Robert Allenby is a breath of fresh air."

Allenby's rationale: "A lot of guys out there think [Tiger] is unbeatable. He's an awesome golfer, the best in the whole world, but if you want to improve and play with the best and beat the best, which is the next step, you can't be afraid of him."

Allenby hasn't followed Woods everywhere this year, but he has gone up against him in three of the five tournaments he has entered. And on Sunday he outplayed Tiger and a host of other challengers to win the Nissan Open. So it has gone the past few months for the best golfer "in the whole world." While nonentities like Garrett Willis (Tucson) and Joe Durant (Bob Hope) have been taking home trophies, His Tigerness has had to content himself with fourth, fifth, eighth and 13th-place checks. The money's decent, but there isn't much immortality in it.

It's as if everybody on the PGA Tour has decided, like Allenby, to take aim at Woods. This is what happens, I suppose, when you lap the field in the U.S. Open, win practically every event worth winning and make the rest of the golf world look bad. People get mad if their competitive juices haven't completely dried up, that is. They rededicate themselves to the game. They spend more time in the fitness trailer. They even give up dessert, if need be.

The results in the first two months have been pretty stunning. In almost every tournament, it seems, someone has played out of his mind. Brad Faxon tied the scoring record in Hawaii. Mark Calcavecchia shot 256 at Phoenix, the lowest 72-hole total in Tour history. Durant finished 36 under in the Hope, the lowest 90-hole total in Tour history. Tiger, meanwhile, strung together three 67s in the last three rounds of the Buick Invitational and couldn't even get in the playoff.

That's the thing. It's not as if Woods is playing badly. Far from it. Consider: In the Mercedes, AT&T;, Buick and Nissan last year he was a combined 50 under par. In the same four tournaments this year he was 42 under par. This constitutes a slump?

Of course not. A slump is what Tiger went through in '98, when he was reworking his swing and won only once. What Tiger is dealing with now is something entirely different, a combination of more inspired competition and, perhaps, a putt or two not dropping each week when he needs them to. (The past two years, while he was racking up 17 Tour victories, he hardly ever missed a putt that mattered.)

No, this is just the ebb and flow of a great career. (And let's not forget: Woods' ebb is better than most golfers' flow.)

Besides, it's more exciting this way. Last year, you have to admit, was pretty devoid of drama because Tiger was so dominant. His back-nine rally at the AT&T; was thrilling, as was his duel with Bob May in the PGA Championship. But other than that … In a lot of events, the question wasn't whether he would win but whether he would break some record. (Except at the late-finishing NEC Invitational, where the question was: Will he be able to see the flagstick when he gets to the 72nd hole, or will he have to rely on radar?)

This year, though, promises to be quite interesting. Davis Love, who hadn't won since '98, broke his drought at Pebble Beach. Phil Mickelson held off Woods at Torrey Pines. Ernie Els is playing well. Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie have already recorded victories overseas as has Australian phenom Aaron Baddeley. Mr. Woods, it appears, is going to be pushed a little harder this time around.

And now Robert Allenby, noted Tiger stalker, has stared him down. "Anyone can win golf tournaments," Norman said back in December. "We're all human beings… . [But] too many [players] believe they're only playing for second spot every week."

That might be changing, if these first two months are any indication. Let's hope so for golf's sake and for Tiger's, too.

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