- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

TULSA, Okla. Never underestimate the debilitating power of psychological scar tissue.

Take a careful look at the list of high-profile players expected to chase Tiger Woods at this week's 101st U.S. Open. More often than not, you'll see victims, not threats.

Starting with his first victory on Tour, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, Woods began weeding out his future rivals, executing their egos in head-to-head play.

That victory came in a playoff with veteran Davis Love, then one of the world's top-three players. Guess what? Love hasn't won a tournament in which Woods has been in contention since.

At the Masters in 1997, Woods faced a third-round date with Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, then Europe's most dominating player. Before the round, Montgomerie trailed Woods by three but said he was confident about his superior experience. Woods shot 65 to Monty's 74, and the Scot came crawling into the interview room to declare the tournament over after just 54 holes.

Through the first five years of Woods' career, the cycle has repeated itself frequently with different players. And in every case, Woods' victims have emerged from the experience partially broken, their confidence deeply shaken. To this date, no player has lost to Woods in a showdown-type situation and rebounded to beat him head-to-head later. Quite simply, Woods has turned intimidation into an art form.

"That experience wasn't painful because he beat me at my best I played terribly," Montgomerie said yesterday of the 1997 Masters. "What was extremely disheartening was, I realized right then that if he was on form, my best still wouldn't have been good enough… . I think any player who has experienced a round like that [with him] would be lying if they didn't admit a loss to him sticks with you a bit."

A review of current world rankings shows that six of the nine players below Woods in the top 10 have experienced such days. No. 2 Phil Mickelson, who was outdueled on the weekend by Woods at the Masters this year, admitted Tuesday he tries not to watch Woods when they are paired together, as if looking at him were akin to staring at the sun. And sixth-ranked David Duval, who had the best chances to catch Woods at last year's British Open and this year's Masters but failed both times, said he feels pressured to play "mistake-free" golf to contend with Woods.

With so many blossoming head cases in Woods' wake, perhaps we should look elsewhere for this week's challenger. Perhaps the most likely assaults on Woods at Southern Hills will come from the only three players in the top 10 who have not yet been psychologically savaged by Woods: Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Hal Sutton.

"My game is exactly where I want it to be for a U.S. Open," said Westwood, who has had just three significant brushes with Woods. He caught and passed Woods with a final-round 64 at last year's German Open and has handled Woods twice (with different partners) in their only two Ryder Cup meetings. "My game is certainly good enough to win this week."

The 28-year-old Westwood skipped the Masters to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, but in the two months since the Brit's game has been rounding into form, yielding back-to-back top-10 finishes in his last two starts. Westwood has played well at the Open (three top-20 finishes). He has the length, accuracy and touch to contend at a major. And he seems to have the unflappable temperament required to tangle with Tiger.

"I think certain players, [Woods] plays with their minds," Westwood said. "But among the realistic contenders for the majors, I don't think he would have that effect."

He certainly hasn't had that effect on Garcia or Sutton. As a 19-year-old playing in his first major as a pro, Garcia pushed Woods to his limits at the 1999 PGA Championship before falling by a single stroke.

"That was definitely a positive for me because it said to me that I could play with him," said Garcia, the hottest player in the field after Woods thanks to his first PGA Tour victory at Colonial and his second-place finish at the Memorial. "I am a much more mature player than I was then. I feel I have grown up a little bit out here. I think I am ready."

Sutton is desperately ready for the challenge, but his body might not be. Sutton, of course, handed Tiger his most notable head-to-head defeat at the Tour Championship last season. His steady fairways-and-greens game makes him an Open natural. And even if his 43-year-old back is as unreliable as a set of Firestones, nobody has questioned his steel-belted constitution.

"I'm not intimidated by anyone out here, Tiger included," Sutton said yesterday. "If that were the case, I wouldn't waste my time being out here… . I have complete faith that my game would hold up under pressure, but there's a lot of golf between now and Sunday afternoon."

And more than likely, four rounds of golf will be ample time for Woods to turn a few more potential heroes into husks.

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