He Is That Good, Even Better

January 24, 2008

In the spirit of this political season, let me go out on a limb with this bold prediction: Based on exit polls, Sirak Says projects a winner at the Buick Invitational and gives Tiger Woods the 62nd victory of his PGA Tour career, tying him for fourth place all time with Arnold Palmer. Really, you set the odds. Tiger going into the weekend with a four-stroke lead at Torrey Pines, where he was won the last three years? You really think anyone is going to catch him?

The funny thing is I can't wait to watch the last two rounds, even though I expect no drama on the weekend. The suspense is not who can beat Tiger, but rather how good can the guy play. I'm a Boston Celtics fan and I feel about Woods they way I felt about those 1980s Larry Bird teams. Watching them win by 30 points was far from boring because of the huge entertainment value from watching how well they played the game.

That's what we have with Tiger. His game is like a series of perfectly executed fast breaks. Woods hasn't played a PGA Tour event since September, and since banking the $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup his only competitive action was the Target World Challenge, the limited-field charity event for the Tiger Woods Foundation, which he won in December. But time off doesn't seem to matter for Woods. The sky is a different color in his world. All he did was return with a tasty 67-65.

Here is the swing key to understanding what Woods is all about. He is not playing against Kevin Streelman or Stewart Cink or Phil Mickelson. He is not even playing against Palmer, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead. He is competing against an inner standard of greatness that is the essence of his being. That's why winning never gets old for him. That's why no amount of money in the bank will ever weaken his desire.

In 1973, when Secretariat came into the Belmont Stakes trying to complete the Triple Crown--horse racing's version of the Grand Slam--he did not settle for mere victory. The other horses that day did not matter. The competition was not on the track but rather in Secretariat's heart. Even as he crossed the finish line an astonishing 31 lengths ahead of the second-place horse, he was still widening his lead. He was running to his own personal agenda.

That's what Woods is doing. That's why this season could truly be something special. Secretariat was a 1-10 favorite in that Belmont Stakes. Bookies are setting the odds of Woods winning the Grand Slam this year--all four major championships--at about 20-1. That the odds are so short is an indication of how amazing Woods is.

Way back in 1997, after he won the Masters by 12 strokes, I asked Tiger if it was possible to win golf's Grand Slam. At the time, Hogan's triple in 1953--when he only played in three of the four majors--was the best any man had done, a feat matched by Woods in 2000. Most any player would deflect the question. Not Tiger.

"It's possible to win four tournaments in a season," Woods told me. "You just have to win the right four." And then he let loose that devastating smile. Here is what Woods knows. This is what drives him. This is what "Pops" Earl made sure Tiger understood: What you achieve is limited by what you believe you can achieve. Woods believes in the unbelievable.

The Masters is, of course, at Augusta National, where Woods has picked up four green jackets. The U.S. Open is at Torrey Pines, and how is the guy doing there? The British Open is at Royal Birkdale, and Tiger has won two of the last three British Opens with brilliant course management--the key to golf's oldest event. And then the PGA Championship is at Oakland Hills, the monster Hogan brought to its knees in 1951. If Woods gets within one win of the Grand Slam it won't matter if they play it at Belmont Park. He'll win.

Anticipation is a very strong emotion. Happiness, a friend once told me, is having something to look forward to. I am really looking forward to this PGA Tour season. Tiger has done a lot of amazing things in his career, and he ain't done yet. He has something special waiting for us. What he has done only two rounds of golf into his 2008 competitive season is set the bar of expectation so unbelievably high--unbelievable to everyone except himself. Tiger with a four-shot lead at Torrey Pines going into the weekend? I like his chances. Grand Slam? I like his chances.