- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland As if Tiger Woods' challengers don't have enough problems, now they have to listen to criticism from golf's greats.

It has become chic of late for the grand old masters of the game to take swipes at Woods' rivals. Over the last month, legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Hale Irwin have suggested that players today just don't have the constitution to beat the 26-year-old Woods, who is attempting to complete the third leg of the Grand Slam in the British Open at Muirfield this week.

Palmer puts Woods' chances of completing the Slam at 60-40. Why?

"Some of the better players, and I don't say all, are sort of saying they think he's going to do it," said Palmer last month. "If I were playing I'd tell you he wasn't, because I'm going to beat him."

After watching the final two rounds of the U.S. Open at home, having missed the cut at Bethpage in New York, Irwin voiced similar sentiments.

"I'd love to be one of those guys out there playing against him," said the three-time U.S. Open champion. "The point has been made before, but no one seems to be rising to his level. Bethpage was a good example. When they got a little close, they fell back. It wasn't that Tiger was surging ahead, it's like they're folding."

Player recently ripped fellow South African Ernie Els and defending British Open champion David Duval for their work ethics. And Nicklaus piled on last week, suggesting that the world's also-rans were "scared of themselves afraid of winning."

Yesterday, the Muirfield range buzzed with indignation as the targets fired back.

"We play a different game out there nowadays," said two-time U.S. Open champion Els, turning his ire on the older generation. "Equipment has changed, but also the players. You don't see guys with fat bellies out there anymore. Guys are fit and strong, and it's a different game. I mean, those great players probably would have been as good today. But would they have beaten Tiger? There is a big question mark.

"If it wasn't for one guy, I think [Phil] Mickelson would have won two or three majors by now. I think David would have probably won the Masters a couple of times. And who knows, maybe I could have won four or five, so there you go. I think this guy is just a totally different talent than the world has ever seen. In a way, I'm kind of glad I'm playing in this era, and in another way, I'm unhappy that I'm playing in this era."

Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion, said, "Sure, it makes me angry, because those guys act like we're just giving it to him. I guess Davis Love and Ernie and Phil are just stiffs. The effort is there. But with a player as talented as Tiger, I don't know what you can do."

It doesn't really matter whether you think the older set is correct or just awash in misguided nostalgia. The closer Woods comes to a record of 18 majors, the more Nicklaus fumes about the caliber of Woods' competition. And it doesn't really matter whether you label the rationalization of his victims capitulation or realism. Woods is clearly in everybody's head, and he must be absolutely loving it.

Yesterday, Woods descended on the property at 6 a.m., played 18 holes on the 7,034-yard, par-71 course in relative peace and slipped quietly back into seclusion.

"I think I broke 100," he said rather nonchalantly as he retreated to his rented house and left the rest of the golf world to chew over his dominance and verbally cannibalize one another.

"He's just laying low and waiting for Thursday," said six-time major winner Nick Faldo, who has collected two of his three British Opens at Muirfield. "And I don't think he's feeling pressure. I think he's feeling confident. Every time he's leading, he's winning, so he hasn't had his confidence dented yet. That will eventually happen, but nobody knows when or how."

A considerable number of insiders think that upset could come this week on a course that values accuracy far more than length. A course, incidentally, where the last real run at a Grand Slam ended exactly 30 years ago, when Lee Trevino clipped a torrid Jack Nicklaus by a stroke. And a fair number of insiders, including British oddsmakers, think the 44-year-old Faldo could be the man to squash the Slam.

Not only has Faldo won the last two Opens at Muirfield (1987 and 1992), but he has also regained his form in the majors this season, finishing 15th at the Masters and fifth at the U.S. Open. And unlike the litany from high-profile players victimized by Woods, Faldo hasn't been pounded into competitive submission by a past run-in with golf's titan.

"If you mean I haven't felt the sting of Tiger's sword, that's true," Faldo said. "I would hope I wouldn't collapse under pressure, because I've certainly been there before. But I think we should wait until things sort themselves out a bit before we start talking about me toting away that jug. That said, I do feel like it's within the realm of possibility."

Faldo's performances under pressure are legend. Between his 18 final-round pars in the wind at the 1987 Open, his two playoff victories at the Masters (1989 and 1990) and his head-to-head demolitions of Greg Norman at the 1990 Open and 1996 Masters, Faldo has rarely failed with the bit of contention in his mouth.

"You would have to fancy Nick, because he's in form, he's won 'round here, and he's a terror under pressure," said 1969 British Open champion Tony Jacklin. "Wouldn't a battle between Tiger and Faldo be a beauty? Now, there's a man capable of testing Tiger's mettle."

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