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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Even Woods isn't perfect every round

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. - We will begin with the two words with which all major golf championships must begin.

Tiger Woods.

That said, the last three majors have been won by Mike Weir, Rich Beem and Ernie Els. You don't have to tax your memory much to add in names like Retief Goosen, David Toms, even David Duval.

Admit it, when Tiger went 18-under at Augusta National in 1997 to win the Masters by 12 shots during his first full year on the PGA Tour, you thought he might win every major between then and the next big flood.

It didn't happen, of course. In fact, he didn't win another in 10 starts.

But when Woods emerged from a piece-by-piece swing overhaul and, starting with the '99 PGA Championship, went on a binge that saw him win five of the next six majors, well, it surely wasn't looking good for the troops. It didn't figure there would be many chances for others.

And then came Els, Beem and Weir.

Are others catching up with Tiger? Is he coming back a little to the field?

“No, no,” Els said, chuckling. “It's just the game. It just goes to show how tough it is to win a major. Tiger is 27 years old and he's won eight majors. That's very, very good. But you're not always going to have it your way.

“I think through the history of the game you've always had guys get hot and have things their way. Look at Tom Watson. I think there was a five-year span when he won seven majors. When your time is right, you grab it. Tiger has done that.

“But other times, when you're not on your game, you're going to have other players playing better. That's just the way it is.”

Even during major weeks. Even when, like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus before him, you spend 48 weeks a year targeting the other four.

Nicklaus is a good example. During his prime - from 1960 when, as an amateur, he finished second to Arnold Palmer in the Open at Cherry Hills, through his last major title at the 1986 Masters - the Golden Bear played in 101 majors and posted an astounding 65 top-10 finishes. Most golf fans know he won 18, but do we all recall that he finished second or third another 27 times? That's 45 finishes among the top three.

Yet mixed in among all those were the occasional missed cut, a tie for 51st here and a 33rd-place finish there. It happens.

Don't get me wrong. This is not to suggest Woods is a mere mortal. There are still two divisions, Tiger and the rest. He's the No. 1 player in the world, and when he's done he may prove to be the No. 1 player of all time.

But he isn't necessarily the best player every week. And there is competition for him out there, some of it the result of his own success.

“I think the way he came onto the tour with such a bang, it changed a lot of players' outlooks and the way we approached the game,” Els said. “I know younger guys want to come out and beat Tiger.”

Some of those young guns are fearless, said Ireland's Padraig Harrington.

“We're all taught how to win these days rather than coming out here and having to learn how,” Harrington said. “We've all competed with the top players and beaten them. So I think you'll see a lot more guys winning big tournaments.

“Tiger will still take up his share of the majors. But you've seen guys the last few years, guys who aren't the so-called favorites or star players, come out of nowhere and win majors. Anyone has that chance.”

And more than usual, it figures, as the 103rd U.S. Open begins today at Olympia Fields.

It seems to be an equal-opportunity golf course, not long beyond belief as was Bethpage Black a year ago, not lined with minefields of brutally high rough. Most Open courses have chip-out rough. Here, golfers may actually be able to advance the ball from off the fairway. It is a course where placement and the ability to shape shots are keys, with doglegs all over the place. The greens have a lot of slope, but are not like putting on glass.

In other words, where Bethpage eliminated just about everyone in the “Golfers Not Named Tiger Flight,” Olympia Fields brings a lot of those folks back into the chase.

As does the knowledge that Tiger isn't always impregnable.



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