- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Conquering No. 2 could prove to be the most difficult step of Tiger Woods’ Grand Slam quest.

As usual, Woods is the odds-on favorite at this week’s major proceedings. But to listen to the buzz around Pinehurst, you would never know it.

Most of the pre-tournament chatter surrounding the 105th U.S. Open, which starts today on the famed 7,214-yard, par-70 Donald Ross layout, has been focused on Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson and the USGA’s brutal course setup.

Tiger, once the searing sun of the golf universe, seemingly has been reduced to planetary status. And given Annika Sorenstam’s outrageous early season romp, which gathered more gravitas when she completed the second leg of the Grand Slam at last week’s LPGA Championship, Woods might not even be golf’s current Jupiter.

He’s no longer considered the whole; he’s just a part — merely the most decorated member of the Big Four or the Big Five.

It’s not as if he’s in a slump, as he was during last season’s swing changes. He has won three times already this year, including the wardrobe addition of a fourth green jacket in the season’s only major.

“This entire year, from what people have said and what I’ve read so far, it’s been kind of amazing. You’d think I hadn’t won a tournament,” said the 29-year-old Woods, who seems more amused than angry by his declining stock among the media. “If I read some of the stuff, it looks like I have no game left, so I might as well quit and retire. I won a major this year. That’s pretty good.”

And yet there does seem to be something wanting about Woods’ performance thus far this season.

Some would point to his accuracy off the tee. Woods ranks 159th on tour in driving accuracy, hitting only 56.3 percent of fairways. While that doesn’t bode particularly well for this week because Pinehurst’s rough is much thicker than it was in 1999, conventional fairways-and-greens golf has never been Woods’ forte. Even during his comical dominance of 2000, Woods didn’t crack the top 50 in that category.

Some question his consistency. He closed with rounds of 75-75 at the Players Championship to fall from contention. He missed his first cut in 142 starts and seven seasons last month at the Byron Nelson Championship. And his play two weeks ago at the Memorial was a case study in fits and starts, birdies and backing up.

But perhaps the real difference between the Woods of this season and the Woods of 2001 and 2002 (when he also showed up at the Open with a green jacket and multiple victories in hand) is the way Woods is winning.

After a convincing win at Torrey Pines (Buick Invitational), he sneaked past Mickelson by one stroke at Doral, then needed a playoff to beat Chris DiMarco at the Masters after carrying a three-stroke lead into the final round.

Frankly, Woods limped to the finish at Augusta National, following his shocking birdie salvo from the sand at the 16th with closing bogeys to give DiMarco new life in sudden death. The old Tiger never gave anything away, particularly not down the stretch. The old Tiger was a ruthless, relentless, competitive machine who terrified opponents on the first tee and then euthanized them on the course.

“I think a little of the intimidation factor is gone,” said DiMarco, who plays with Woods today and tomorrow and could rue his words. “I think it’s a combination. He was playing so good for one [when he four straight majors from 2000-01]. He was winning those tournaments by eight, 10, 12 shots. He was playing phenomenal. Everybody knew he was going to be there, and people were intimidated.

“Once people started beating him down the stretch, that kind of faded away, and that helps a lot. And I think that we as a whole have gotten better. I think he’s made us get better. And I don’t think he’s playing … let’s just say I don’t know if he could ever play at that level again. That was amazing.”

Woods would love nothing better than to cram those words down DiMarco’s throat this week, not that he needs any motivation beyond his pursuit of a 10th major title.

“I live for these things,” Woods said. “I love the thrill of the hunt, getting out there and competing and trying to win a tournament. That’s a rush, man. To me, that’s as fun as it gets.”

Woods was decidedly prickly when asked to comment on his Grand Slam chances, claiming he never looks beyond the tournament in which he is competing. But it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t considered the fact that a victory this week at Pinehurst, where he finished tied for third in 1999, would send him to the British Open with a half-Slam complete and a course seemingly made for him on the docket.

Unlike in 2002, when Woods achieved the feat only to be blown off course at Muirfield, the prospect of vying for the third leg at St. Andrews, where he won by eight strokes in 2000, has to have him salivating. And anybody who thinks Woods wouldn’t consummate the once-in-a-lifetime deal at Baltusrol (PGA Championship) hasn’t watched him play enough pressure golf. Tiger, in sporting measures perhaps matched only by Michael Jordan in this generation, has that uncanny ability of always rising to the occasion. He has never let the golf world down.

So while there is little doubt Woods has not returned to his form of yesteryear, don’t think he’s incapable of rediscovering it this week.

“There’s a reason there’s a Big Four or a Big Five, and it’s because one guy is playing mediocre,” John Cook said. “If that one guy is playing his best, there is no Big Four.”

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