- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MARANA, Ariz. — Tiger Woods has but one true mountain looming on the landscape of his epic achievement: a Grand Slam.

As golf’s 32-year-old demigod reaches the turn in his incomparable career, few observers question whether he’ll eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 major titles or Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour titles. With 13 majors and 62 titles already banked and at least a decade of prime play before him, Woods has reduced those marks to virtual molehill status.

Only golf’s ultimate Everest qualifies as a challenge worthy of Woods.

“The majority of years I’ve played, I think I’ve won over five tournaments per year. [In order to win the Slam], I just have to win the right four,” Woods said yesterday on the eve of the Accenture World Match Play Championship. “A few years ago [2005], I was four shots from either winning or making the playoff in all four. I was pretty close. … is it possible? I’ve won four in a row before [2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters], so it is possible.”

Such matter-of-fact analysis of a challenge Nick Faldo once described as “slightly more difficult than scaling Everest … barefooted” would seem pure blasphemy if uttered by any other lips. But Woods is in the midst of one of his logic-warping streaks of superiority. And this season’s major venues, like those of 2000 and 2005, seem conducive to an unparalleled Woodsian roar.

Dating to last season’s Bridgestone Invitational (Aug. 2-5), Woods has collected six victories and a runner-up finish in seven starts, adding a 13th major title (2007 PGA Championship), two tournament scoring records (BMW and Tour Championship) and the PGA Tour’s inaugural FedEx Cup crown to his ever-burgeoning resume.

In fact, his scoring average during the current streak (67.0) trumps even those posted during his runs of seven (67.18) and six (68.21) straight triumphs from 2006-07 and 1999-2000, respectively. Translation: The game’s best player has never played better over an extended period of time.

For most of the last decade, every season began with an attempt to locate a potential rival for Woods. From David Duval and Sergio Garcia to Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, a procession of prospective foils has been introduced and found wanting.

As Woods enters his 12th season on the tour, his contemporaries admit he has no peer.

“I’ve never seen anything like Tiger,” Els said. “I’ve seen Jack Nicklaus play on television. I’ve seen Nick Faldo; I played a lot of golf with him. And all these guys were No. 1 for long stretches of time, even Greg Norman, and all had the ability to really knuckle down and push everything else aside and concentrate on the work at hand…. But Tiger is a step above. Actually, it’s a treat just to play with him, just to see how he goes about his work.”

Less than two months from now, Woods will begin the meat of that work at Augusta National, as he attempts to take the first step of a Grand Slam season at the Masters. If he slips into a fifth green jacket, watch out, because the U.S. Open will be contested on a course (Torrey Pines) in which he practically pays property taxes. Woods won his fourth consecutive Buick Invitational title at Torrey Pines last month and boasts six career victories on the suburban San Diego track.

The British Open returns to Royal Birkdale after a 10-year hiatus, a links where Woods finished one stroke out of a playoff in an otherwise lean 1998 season. The final leg of the slam belongs to Oakland Hills, where Woods made his first U.S. Open cut as an amateur in 1996.

“I like all four venues. That’s the thing. I really do,” Woods said. “It’s all about playing well at the right time.”

No one is unrealistic enough to expect a Slam uprising from Woods this season.

But given the combination of his recent form, past major mastery and comfort level on the courses, the notion is no shocker.

“You know, he’s defied all law there is out there in golfing terms,” Els said. “It’s obviously on his mind. If there’s one guy that can do it, it’s probably him. I’d love to stop him. But he definitely has the ability and mental capacity to do it.”

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