- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — It’s hard to imagine that the man who won a green jacket with a record score in his first professional major, a U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the Tiger Slam still has the capacity to mystify.

But Tiger Woods did it again over the weekend at Hoylake.

Golf’s 30-year-old goliath always has had the game’s fastball. This week he proved he also has its best changeup.

Woods (18-under 270) played a different course than the rest of the field at Royal Liverpool. He played the 7,258-yard, par-72 links with 13 clubs, hitting his driver just once in four days. He played 40 yards behind his challengers all week (albeit in the fairway), turning the kind of long-iron approaches he might hit once or twice over the course of a standard event into his Hoylake standard.

And he won the 135th British Open going away with a score just one stroke shy of his own championship record (19 under at St. Andrews in 2000).

It’s enough to make the rest of golf’s so-called elite take up tennis.

Conventional wisdom always has said the best way to Tigerproof a golf tournament is to take the driver out of the man’s hands. Well, it’s time for old CW to re-evaluate. Everyone knew Tiger could bomb; now, everyone knows he can bunt.

Woods played Hoylake from position Funk, and he still flogged the field.

It would be easy to pounce on the rest of the game’s pretenders. After all, three-time major champion Ernie Els (275) began the weekend one behind Woods and carded 71-71 in the Slam spotlight. Considering Hoylake featured four reachable par-5s, Els’ closing effort corresponds to about 6 over. No offense to the affable South African, but his “rivalry” with Woods is starting to look a lot like Navy-Notre Dame.

And then there’s Sergio Garcia (277), the world’s oldest 26-year-old. Garcia teased again at a major with his Saturday 65, pulling within one of Woods and earning a spot alongside the master in the Open’s final pairing. But Garcia forfeited the claret jug right out of the closet yesterday morning. You don’t dress like a canary if you plan on tangling with a Tiger. Garcia showed up looking like a jester and provided plenty of comic relief with his putter, yipping his way out of the championship on the second and third greens. Until the Spaniard discovers his inner Crenshaw, he will never be anything but a major bust.

As has been the case throughout his career, the only man who challenged Woods yesterday came from outside the game’s top 10. Just as he did at last year’s Masters, Chris DiMarco (272) gave Tiger a spirited fight, posting a 68 to Woods’ 67 yesterday thanks to some miraculous putting and more grit than game.

“If you can’t get up playing the best player in the world in a major, I don’t know what else there is,” said DiMarco, who seems to be the only semi-elite player in the world who doesn’t wilt in Woods’ presence. “It pumps me up. I know Tiger said one of the greatest things ever. I don’t know how many years ago he said it, but he said being in contention in a major or any tournament is like a drug. And it is. It’s our drug.”

Apparently, golf could use a few more junkies.

DiMarco’s performance and subsequent jump in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings (to sixth) is certainly good news for captain Tom Lehman and the United States’ chances at the K Club in two months (Sept. 22-24). DiMarco teamed with Phil Mickelson to post a 3-0-1 record at last year’s Presidents Cup and then holed the event’s winning putt in the singles.

But it sure would be nice to see somebody with more than two victories and a $2 swing swap shots with Woods at a major.

That said, perhaps the 135th British Open simply reaffirmed what was already known: When Woods brings his A-game to a major, the rest of the field turns into a B-movie.

In running his record in majors to 11-for-11 when he holds the 54-hole lead, Woods proved again his only real rival has been history, namely the legacy of Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors. Yesterday, Woods joined Walter Hagen with 11 major victories, leaving him behind only Nicklaus in the all-time Slam tally. Nicklaus didn’t win his 11th major until he was 32 (1972 U.S. Open), putting Woods comfortably ahead of Nicklaus’ pace.

And what Woods accomplished at Hoylake was not unlike what Nicklaus managed at Muirfield at the 1966 British Open.

“Not only was that my first British Open, it was special because I wasn’t supposed to be able to win at Muirfield,” Nicklaus said at Hoylake this week. “It was supposed to be too tight for me.”

Nicklaus won that week largely because he left his driver in the bag all week and plotted his way around Muirfield with a 1-iron.

As always, Tiger continues to follow in Jack’s footsteps. And the only competition remaining pits Tiger against Jack’s golden template.

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