- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — If nothing else this Masters week, perhaps we can reacquaint ourselves with some of the players who have all vanished from the golfing landscape the past nine months — since Tiger Woods decided to go bonkers again. Remember when only a tent, a tree and a bunker stood between Phil Mickelson and his third straight major championship? Remember when Vijay Singh and Ernie Els were thought of as Worthy Woods Rivals and Adam Scott was anointed as the Younger Guy Who Might Give Tiger A Run?

It seems like a million years ago now — a million years or 18 holes with Bernhard Langer, whichever comes first. Indeed, since putting a torch to Royal Liverpool in the British Open last July, Woods has made everyone else in his sport virtually disappear. This is what happens when you enter 11 stroke-play events and win eight, including seven in a row. The PGA Tour starts to look like Tiger and the 124 Dwarfs.

Here’s how discombobulated the golf world has become: As the 71st Masters approaches, people are actually talking about Henrik Stenson and Charles Howell III.

Not that we haven’t seen this before. Woods had a similar stretch in ‘99 and 2000. But that was before Mickelson had won any of his three majors … and before Singh had notched the 10th of his 31 Tour victories. Scott was still in his teens, Geoff Ogilvy had yet to arrive — it was a totally different universe.

You worry about Tiger’s competition, you really do, worry as much about their psyches as their spin control. After all, a certain awe is creeping back into their comments about Woods, a certain Resignation With Their Lot In Life. It’s not just that they’re light years behind him by any conceivable measure, it’s that some of them don’t even seem all that interested in being No. 2, never mind No. 1 — out of fear, possibly, that Tiger will focus too much of his attentions on them.

“As far as who anyone would pick to be the next guy to challenge Tiger, I would be willing to beg you to pick someone else,” Jim Furyk says, “and please leave me alone.”

See what I mean? Right now, at least, it’s like they don’t want any part of Woods, like they’re lying low in the tall grass, waiting for the storm to pass — waiting for him to change his swing again, maybe.

“Only a few weeks of the year [do] you feel like you have everything [going for you],” Scott says, “and you have to take advantage of those. And that’s what Tiger does. But the rest of the time he manages himself so well he winds up winning them all, anyway.”

With four green jackets already in his wardrobe, Woods obviously feels very much at home at Augusta National, Scott concedes, “but there’s nothing I can do about [that]. All I can do is control myself and the way I feel. And if I’m playing well and feeling good about my game …”

This is where Tiger’s foes begin to sound like that “Saturday Night Live” character, Stuart Smalley. My tee shots are long enough, my irons are straight enough and, doggone it, galleries like me.

Defending champ Mickelson, meanwhile, takes two drivers into his Masters battle with Tiger — his sword and dagger, his lance and slingshot, his spear and mace. Unfortunately, armaments alone won’t level the playing field for Woods’ pursuers. What goes on in their heads is every bit as important, and right now they’re entertaining some seriously negative thoughts.

Lefty, for instance, has teed it up with Tiger in eight events since his U.S. Open meltdown. His best finish has been a tie for 16th. Not to worry, he says, “I’ve had to overcome tough losses in the past. Certainly Winged Foot was a tough loss. Shinnecock was a tough loss; I doubled 17 there to lose [the ‘04 Open] and had to come back from that. Losing the PGA in ‘01 after three-putting 16 was probably the hardest. I thought it was harder because I hadn’t won a major at the time. Didn’t know if I could do it.”

Then there’s Els. The Big Easy tore up his knee in a boating mishap a while back and, well, it’s almost as if he was washed overboard. He hasn’t won in the United States in almost three years — and this is supposed to be the prime of his career. Lately, though, he’s been piling up the top 10s, leading him to conclude: “I think I’m finally back to normal, I think.”

That’s two “thinks” in one sentence — way too much thinking for a golfer.

Then again, these last few months haven’t been all bad for Tiger’s adversaries. Take Ogilvy. Since Mickelson deposited the Open in his lap, the young Aussie finds himself much more recognized the world over. In the past, he says, fans would shout “Hey, Joe!” at him, mistaking him for American pro Joe Ogilvie. But now, “for the most part, it’s ‘Hey, Geoff!’ So it’s good.”

Or rather, as good as it’s going to get as long as Tiger Woods is in his all-you-can-eat mode.

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