- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

In the aftermath of Tiger's latest major triumph, golf's also-rans are forced to focus on minor improvements.
"At least we're making him work for it," said Sergio Garcia, who missed a dozen putts inside of 10 feet at Bethpage and finished six strokes in arrears of Woods. "I think the way he won at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews [in 2000] was a little embarrassing for all of us. He's still winning, but maybe we're gaining."
Maybe. The notion of competitive parity seems a bit absurd when discussing a player who has won seven of the last 11 major championships. But both Garcia and U.S. Open runner-up Phil Mickelson left Bethpage feeling more worthy than ever as challengers to Woods.
"There were huge steps to catch up with Tiger," said Mickelson, who finished three behind Woods but outplayed him (70-72) on Sunday. "The guy was shooting 18-under at Augusta, 12-under at the U.S. Open at Pebble. So, there was a huge gap. But as a player, I feel like I'm improving very steadily. It's difficult to compete with a player of Tiger's caliber, but I've been able to do it the last year or two. I haven't been able to win as much as I'd like, but I'm closer."
On one level, Lefty is desperately searching for a few rays of sunlight during the current Tiger eclipse. But upon closer examination, both Mickelson and Garcia have a point, however tenuous. When you compare Tiger's first four major victories with his last four (see adjoining chart), there seems little doubt that the rest of the golf world has closed the talent gap Woods once enjoyed.
Now, golf purists would scoff at the argument that others are gaining ground on the game's unquestioned king (sorry, Arnold). After all, you don't get style points in golf. It's not as if Woods got to etch his name on the claret jug in all caps in 2000 because he won by eight strokes and posted four rounds in the 60s at St. Andrews.
But it's difficult to argue that his last four major victories (by an average of two strokes) have been as convincing as his first four, which he won by an average mazrgin of nine strokes. Three of those first four victories weren't just individually awe-inspiring, they were downright demoralizing for the rabble better known as the field.
At Bethpage, Tiger didn't absolutely trounce the opposition, he simply outlasted it. He was more methodical than merciless, a closing 72 on the par-70 Black Course providing a case study in pragmatism, not perfection.
"I think he was a little nervous. He felt the pressure, too," said Garcia of the two three-putts that opened Tiger's final round.
If Woods was a bit tight with a four-stroke lead at the Open, he's likely to be even more edgy at the British Open, where he will attempt to become the first player since Ben Hogan (1953) to complete the first three legs of the Grand Slam.
"Actually, I think it will be easier this time, because I've won four in a row before," said the 26-year-old Woods, assessing his confidence level at the halfway mark of his outrageous quest. "I know I can do it."
Nobody doubts his ability to pull of golf's ultimate coup.
But fact is, the toughest two legs of the Slam are still in front of Woods.
Unlike Augusta National and Bethpage Black, Muirfield has no love affair with length. And though Woods would be favored if the next major were played with gutta percha balls in Tim Finchem's backyard, his forte is the mortar-style, drop-and-stop, high iron shot. Not that he can't adapt, but Woods' strengths certainly don't match Muirfield's primary requirements. In fact, Tiger's only British Open victory came in dead calm conditions at St. Andrews, the ultimate big-hitter's track.
"Yeah, Muirfield is a lousy fit for him. He'll struggle all the way around," said two-time Muirfield master Nick Faldo facetiously. "No, I'm sure he'll be ready. But it will be a totally different kind of test."
And at least one familiar major challenger should be a factor once again at Muirfield (July 18-21). Garcia maimed the field at Muirfield en route to the 1998 British Amateur title, crushing Craig Williams 7 and 6 in the finals.
"I know my way around there, and I'm already looking forward to getting back," said the 22-year-old Garcia, closing in on his first major title after three top-10s in the last four Slams. "Eventually, one is going to come. And as soon as that first one comes, then everything will seem a little easier."
If Woods manages to survive Muirfield, completing the Slam at the PGA Championship (Aug. 15-18) could prove to be his second-highest hurdle. Though length definitely returns to the equation at Hazeltine (7,360-yards, par-72), the circus surrounding Tiger's Slam bid will likely make that the most draining week of his life.
"Take the exuberance of the fans this week and multiply it by five," said Faldo, who agreed with the rest of the players at the Open that galleries at Bethpage were the most boisterous in major-championship history. "If he makes it to Minnesota (Hazeltine is in Chaska, Minn.), managing the media and fans will be as difficult for him as managing the field."
But managing the field is becoming more and more difficult. Woods is still winning majors, but he's no longer quashing the spirit of his competition.
Mickelson left Bethpage knowing he has the tools and constitution to clip Woods on a major Sunday. Garcia left the Black Course knowing only a balky putter kept him from taking down Tiger. When the field arrives at Muirfield next month, Tiger's Slam bid will be intact. But the fear factor has already begun to erode.
"I'm looking forward to doing this again," said Garcia after his first final-round pairing with Woods. "I hope this is the first of many, because I can't wait to give him a better round."

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