- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

MEDINAH, Ill. — Tiger Woods’ outrageous streak of Slam closes is about to meet its sternest Sunday test.

To this point in his unparalleled career, golf’s 30-year-old major maven has been perfect from the 54-hole Slam pole, winning all 11 of the majors in which he has held or shared the lead.

In fact, that’s the only way Woods has ever won a major. Unlike Jack Nicklaus, who was famous for his final-round charges, Tiger has collected all his major laurels from the front.

But at some point, logic dictates that Woods won’t parlay a Saturday-night lead into Sunday-afternoon Slam spoils.

“At some point, he’s not going to win one when he’s leading,” said U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who stands at 11 under, three behind co-leaders Woods and Luke Donald. “He’s not going to go his whole career, hopefully, leading after three rounds and winning.”

Now, nobody on the planet would predict a final-round swoon from Woods, who played almost flawless tee-to-green golf yesterday, hitting 17 greens during a command-grabbing third round (65) that would have been the day’s best if not for a lone three-putt hiccup at the 16th.

But two factors are at play at Medinah that have rarely been in evidence in Tiger’s other 11 major uprisings. First and foremost, the suburban Chicago layout is absolutely hemorrhaging birdies. Both Woods and 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir torched the track for course-record 65s yesterday, and 17 others managed to post rounds in the 60s.

“This doesn’t feel like a major in a sense,” said Woods, who went on to tag the soft, cushy setup as the easiest he has ever seen at a major. “When you have greens this soft and fairways this soft, and greens basically this slow, you know you’re going to have to make a bunch of birdies.

“In most major championships, you make pars and sprinkle in a couple birdies here and there, and you’re looking pretty good. If you did that today, you would have been just run over, which is different.”

That means Woods must deviate from his standard formula for major success today. There will be no plodding along with par after par and waiting for the rest of the field to falter at Medinah. Tiger will have to show up at the first tee today in full attack mode. He’ll have to be prepared for the prospect that some early sizzler will have already caught and passed him by the time he tees off. And given another windless forecast, he’ll have to bring his birdie-hording best to today’s PGA Championship finale.

“Someone from the pack is going to charge out and make some early birdies and go low,” said Donald, the 28-year-old Brit making his debut in a major’s final pairing today. “You know pars are not going to be very good [today].”

Now, no one is suggesting that Woods isn’t more capable than any player in golf of piling up birdies; his multiple double-digit blitzings of St. Andrews (2000 and 2005) and Augusta National (1997 and 2001), not to mention last month’s heroics at Hoylake, are obviously a testament to his ability to take it deep.

But Woods is the first to admit he’s at his best when pars are at a premium and single-digit, red-number totals are required to reach the winner’s circle. When a 63 or 64 is in play, as it well could be today at Medinah, more guys enter the competitive mix. And for Woods, more is not merrier.

The second factor threatening the streak today is the sheer volume and caliber of the hungry youngish bunch pursuing Woods. He’ll have to swap shots today with the four best players from their respective nations in Donald, Canada’s Mike Weir (12-under), Australia’s Ogilvy and Spain’s Sergio Garcia (10-under).

Weir (2003 Masters) and Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open) both boast major championships. The 26-year-old Garcia, though still seeking his long-awaited major breakthrough, has as much Slam experience as almost anybody in the game, though, admittedly, much of it is negative.

And Donald, though a newcomer to the Slam spotlight, has the perfect placid temperament for the game’s ultimate stress test.

“Luke’s very steady,” said Woods of the Northwestern grad who will bring as many fans to today’s final pairing as the game’s titan. “He doesn’t get emotionally up and down. He’s very level-headed, and that’s how you need to be in major championships. … It’s a new experience for him to be in the final group. But, you know, I’m sure he’ll handle himself very well.”

One of those four is almost guaranteed to challenge Woods today, just as Garcia famously did as a 19-year-old comer at Medinah in the 1999 PGA Championship. And while Woods is the best thing that ever happened to golf, perhaps the best thing that could happen for the game today would be if one of them could finally snap the streak.

Fact is, the only knock on golf in the Tiger era is that the game has been long on predictability and short on secondary heroes. Perhaps a refreshing change will be on the menu today at Medinah.

“Someone is going to beat him one day,” Ogilvy said. “It would be more special to win the tournament, if he would be leading going into the last round and you beat him. That would be a pretty good feather in your cap, you know what I mean?”

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