- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

TULSA, Okla. Tigermania has now conquered golf's last bastion of skepticism.

Rarely does a coronation begin in the interview room two days before the first swing of a major championship. But yesterday, the primary threats to Tiger Woods' Grand Slam streak paraded through the media center tossing verbal bouquets to the 25-year-old titan and genuflecting to his growing legend.

The media petitioned Mr. Webster for more superlatives to describe Woods months ago. And most fans dubbed him the god of the game after the 1997 Masters. But there was always a certain amount of reticence to sing his praises among the game's other elite players.

Until now.

As recently as two months ago at the Masters, David Duval bristled when asked to discuss Woods' run of dominance. Yesterday at Southern Hills Country Club, the typically gruff Duval practically groveled when addressing the same questions, sounding more like a member of Tiger's promotional team than the PGA Tour.

"I think that every time [Woods] wins, it's good for golf," said Duval, the only player in the field of this week's 101st U.S. Open with three straight top-10 finishes in the event. "I think we're lucky to be playing in a time when you're seeing a person who might very well end up being the greatest player that's ever played the game. We're involved in a sport that has the most recognizable athlete and maybe one of the most recognizable people in the world participating… . Really, what else is there to talk about in the game of golf right now?"

Vijay Singh, the last player other than Tiger to win a major, allowed his caddie to wear a "Tiger Who?" hat at last year's Presidents Cup. Yesterday, he merely sported a sheepish grin when asked if he or his caddie planned to don a similarly challenging message this week.

"No, that was a poor decision, but it was made in good fun," said Singh. "He's proved himself again and again, and right now we're all just sitting back watching him."

Spain's Sergio Garcia, who comes to the Open as the second-hottest player on the planet after a win at the Colonial and a runner-up finish to Woods at the Memorial, frowned when asked what it takes to beat Tiger.

"Good question," Garcia said. "Maybe the way to overcome Tiger is to be perfect, and if not, congratulate him… . Maybe we can overwhelm him with numbers. Bob May by himself wasn't enough at [last year's] PGA Championship. Duval and [Phil] Mickelson weren't enough at the Masters. But if three, four, five of us go at him? That might be the secret."

All this reverence in Tulsa comes just two weeks after Scotland's Colin Montgomerie was asked to asses his chances in the Open, where he has finished either third or runner-up three times.

"Is Woods injured?" Montgomerie quipped to Golf World.

That same week at the Memorial, Paul Azinger apologized to Woods for not giving him more competition in the final round, where Woods shot 66 to Azinger's 74 and won by seven strokes.

Where's the healthy competitive disdain among Woods' top would-be challengers.

"It's vanishing," said NBC analyst Johnny Miller. "I think a lot of the guys out here praise him far too much. You would never have heard me or Jack [Nicklaus] or [Tom] Watson saying the kinds of things about each other these guys are saying about Tiger. You can respect him immensely, while still saying he has to keep proving it. Tip your hat to him at the end of the week, don't tip your hand to him before he hits a shot."

Maybe Tiger's Tour brethren have conspired to kill him with kindness compliment Woods so much that his head explodes.

More likely, his potential rivals have simply become realists. After all, Woods has won 23 times in his last 45 starts worldwide. And his non-adjusted scoring average this season (68.04) is even better than it was last season (68.32), when he shattered the PGA Tour standard. Then, of course, there is his unthinkable record in the majors five of the last six and four straight.

"I think [that streak] is second to none in the game of golf and in sports in general," said Duval.

Only one other player in history has won four straight professional majors; Young Tom Morris, who won the four British Opens contested between 1868 and 1872. The event was canceled in 1871, because Morris had retired the traditional champion's belt by virtue of his three straight victories. With most of the 156-man field shamelessly gushing about Woods this week, maybe they should have canceled this Open, as well.

No player seems to have the temerity or the spunk to pick against Woods at Southern Hills. And that has to leave you wondering whether the 101st Open is over before it even begins.

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