SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The working title for the 2004 golf season is Rivals’ Revenge.
After years of absorbing whippings and media abuse, four elite players long expected to challenge Tiger Woods finally have arrived en masse.
Tiger still might be No.1 in the world according to the rankings, but he’s barely on the short list of the season’s top performers heading into this week’s 104th U.S. Open. Not only is the 28-year-old Woods in the midst of a seven-start major drought, his lone PGA Tour victory (World Match Play) this season came four months ago in a funky format.
Meanwhile, four players have posted multiple victories this season. And not just any four.
World No.2 Ernie Els has won three times worldwide, pasting a high-profile field at the Memorial two weeks ago and nearly winning his fourth major at the Masters.
World No.3 Vijay Singh has a PGA Tour-leading three victories in the United States this season and leads the PGA Tour money list ($4.67million).
World No.4 Phil Mickelson has a tour-leading 10 top-10 finishes and a pair of wins, including his breakthrough major triumph at the Masters.
And world No.10 Sergio Garcia has won twice in the last month (Byron Nelson and Buick Classic), seemingly solving the putting woes that slowed him even more than last season’s swing change.
“A lot of the top-level players are in form right now, and that’s great to see,” said Garcia, still all smiles after his victory last week at Westchester. “I don’t think Tiger has played his best this year, and I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that, but I think maybe he’s inspired us all to bigger things. Hopefully, we’ll be ready when he gets back to his best.”
Obviously, Els, Singh, Mickelson and Garcia have more in common than just their top-10 rankings. Each has taken his turn in the chair reserved for Tiger’s top rival over the last five years. And each handled his sit-down like a trip to Old Sparky, tumbling out months later after unsuccessful stints, both physically and psychologically fried.
“The 2000 season definitely took a toll on me emotionally,” said Els, who finished second to Woods at the Mercedes, Memorial, U.S. Open and British Open two years ago. “I did let it get to me a little bit at one point because I was thinking about beating [Tiger] instead of taking care of my game.”
Els was not alone in that mind-set. The caliber of golf Woods played from the 1999 PGA through the 2002 U.S. Open, winning seven of the 11 majors, transcended anything the game had witnessed and, quite possibly, anything it will witness. The brilliance of that streak is exactly the reason why the golf world is so astounded by Woods’ current major drought.
“Seven majors without one, yeah, it’s a long time considering the fact that I was winning what seemed like every other one for a while there,” Woods said yesterday. “But at least I was in contention. If I had not been in contention in those seven major championships, then I would not be happy at all.”
Actually, Woods shouldn’t be happy. Not because of the state of his game; even with a balky driver and without longtime swing coach Butch Harmon, Woods has managed to scratch out seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts this season. Considering he’s playing with about 12 clubs (minus his misbehaving driver and 3-wood), that’s absolutely astounding.
What Woods should be nonplussed about is the loss of something far less tangible, though far more powerful — the psychological stranglehold he once had on his top challengers. His current dry run in the majors, combined with his slow start this season, has cost him the air of invincibility that once constantly preyed on the minds of players like Els, Singh, Mickelson and Garcia.
“We all know when Tiger reaches his level of play, he is still almost unstoppable,” Mickelson said jauntily yesterday. “I think we all appreciate that he’s sharing the wealth and letting us win some tournaments.”
Fact is, two years ago Woods’ dominance at his ultimate level was no laughing matter. Not for Mickelson, who finished second to him at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002 and then followed with a burnt-out 2003 in which he went winless for the first time in a decade.
It was no joke for Els, who engaged sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout to help him deal with what the guru called the “Tiger Syndrome.”
It was no joke for Garcia, whose last trip to Long Island (the 2002 Open at Bethpage) produced a case study in petulance, conspiracy theory and New York’s intolerance for whiners.
And it was no joke for Singh, who hasn’t been the same force at the majors since Woods stared him down in back-to-back Masters (2001-02).
But over the last two years, those emotional wounds have healed. Tiger has turned mortal, and his top four rivals have found both their form and a new sense of hope. Such is the backdrop for what could be an unforgettable showdown at Shinnecock. Both Woods and his top rivals have come to a career crossroads: His dominance and their helplessness have given way to competitive balance. And not since Woods joined the tour have so many members of the game’s gliterati arrived at a major so perfectly tuned to tangle.
“We’re all so close,” Els said of the suddenly suspense-filled fray at the game’s highest level. “It’s all out there on the table this week. … Everything is right there, and it’s kind of exciting.”