- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland With Tiger sensing the Slam, the rest of the field at this week's British Open has resorted to rationalization and relativism.

The chorus from Tiger's would-be challengers at Muirfield is much the same as it was at last month's U.S. Open. Call it the halfhearted wail of false hope. At Bethpage, the concept was that Tiger had never won a major on a par-70 course. Take away a couple of his par-5 snacks, and Woods was supposed to behave like a mortal. Well, Tiger punched a major hole in that theory.

This week some players have suggested that Muirfield's short layout (7,034 yards, par 71) plays away from Tiger's strengths.

"It certainly wouldn't seem to suit him as well as Augusta National or Bethpage," said New Zealand's Michael Campbell, joining Nick Price, Darren Clarke, Justin Leonard and a host of others clinging to this notion.

It seems logical to assume that Muirfield would pose a bigger challenge to Woods than bomber-friendly tracks like Augusta National and Bethpage. But suggesting that Muirfield doesn't suit Woods is a little like saying the haiku didn't suit Shakespeare. True masters transcend mere style. If Tiger's Slam quest reaches Hazeltine intact, some genius is likely to point out that Woods has never won a major in Minnesota.

"Honestly, if we held a putting contest around the chairs in the clubhouse, I think Tiger would be favored," said Colin Montgomerie, who all but etched Woods' name on the claret jug yesterday. "We have to hope that Tiger doesn't perform, and then we will all have an opportunity. If he plays the way he has been and is doing, we all believe that opportunity won't arise."

If Woods does have a concern this week, it's that the conditions at Muirfield have been decidedly non-Openesque. The layout is soaked, forgiving wayward lines off tees and forcing less creativity around greens. And the wind is down and forecast to remain relatively tame, stripping the course of its primary defense. Unless the cavalry arrives in the form of a proper gale, Muirfield is likely to play its easiest this week.

That's bad news for all of the game's top players because easy tracks are less discriminating. If the 131st British Open turns into a birdie fest, even an obscure player could throw a major kink into Tiger's Slam plans. Remember Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship?

"I don't think anyone wants to see it play soft and still, because that's not links golf," said three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo, who picked up his first and last jugs at Muirfield (1987 and '92). "If it stays like this, guys will butcher this place strategy and precision will go right down the loo."

Of course, Woods did win at St. Andrews (2000) in similarly benign conditions. But St. Andrews is a notorious big hitter's layout, unlike Muirfield. And by his own admission, Woods is playing a more conservative, slightly less devastating game at the moment.

"No, I haven't hit the ball quite as well as I did in 2000," said the 26-year-old Woods earlier this week. "You don't win nine times in the States I think I won 12 around the world that year slapping it around. I haven't hit the ball as close to the flags as consistently as I did in 2000. I was probably a little more aggressive because I felt better about hitting it close. This year I've kind of played a little bit more conservatively because I haven't hit the ball quite as crisp."

That conservative approach might not cut it at Muirfield if the British Open turns into a flag-rattling contest.

And it's not as if Woods has spent the last month preparing for such a red-number barrage by playing in regular Tour events. Woods hasn't played a competitive round since the U.S. Open. Of the 156 players in the field, only Jim Furyk, who has been home awaiting the birth of his first child, has taken a break as long.

"It wasn't like I was playing poorly coming out of it and trying to find my game," said Woods, dismissing the hint that rust could be an issue. "My practice rounds have gone very well, and I'm pleased with the way I'm hitting the golf ball right now. I don't foresee it to be a problem."

Probably not. But the fact is, players and fans who are desperate for a smidgen of suspense in what is currently the world's most predictable sport will cling to anything. Sooner or later, the man who has won seven of the last 11 majors is going to have to show a glint of human failing. It's inevitable. And players can't help but wonder if this just might be the week. Such chatter could be in vain. But aside from the Slam Watch itself, conjecturing about that week of weakness is all the golf world has left.

"There's no doubt that he's able to do whatever it takes to come out on top," said Sergio Garcia, the 22-year-old Spaniard who has committed himself to chasing down Tiger. "That probably puts a little bit of extra pressure on the other guys, thinking, 'Well, he's not going to make mistakes, so we have to try harder.'

"You know, I think it's just a matter of time before somebody comes out and gets rid of that [aura of invincibility] and makes everybody believe."

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