February 23, 2008

It's Not All That Crazy

It may sound a little crazy to you, but Ron Sirak is going out on a limb: Tiger will tie Byron Nelson's record of 11 sraight PGA Tour wins

The following column is absurd. The premise is ridiculous. It is a fanciful flight beyond the improbable and past the impossible, landing smack dab in the middle of the inconceivable. Yet, since it involves Tiger Woods, speculation involving that which seems to be beyond the pale is within reason. Here it goes: Tiger will tie Byron Nelson's record of 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories when he wins the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June.

If you haven't noticed, the greatest golfer ever is playing better than ever right now. He is also getting the kind of breaks great players get when they accomplish feats that are truly extraordinary. In winning the Accenture Match Play Championship by routing Stewart Cink 8 and 7 Sunday in a match that was not as close as the score indicates, Woods completed a clinic on The Gallery at Dove Mountain course near Tucson that once again demonstrated that he is the best player in every aspect of the game -- power, precision, putting and most conclusively, mental toughness.

On Wednesday, when Woods was 3 down with 5 holes to play against J.B. Holmes, all he did was go birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle to send a dazed Holmes packing. Then, in his third-round match against Aaron Baddeley, the young Australian had birdie putts inside 15 feet on the 18th and 19th holes to defeat Woods but missed them both. On the next hole, when Woods had an opportunity of the same length, he converted. He got a break in that Baddeley missed -- twice -- but, as great athletes do, he took advantage of those breaks.

Here are some numbers to consider from the Accenture Match Play: In 117 holes, Woods made 45 birdies and two eagles. He played 47 of his 117 holes under par. Against Baddeley; he made birdies on 10 of the 20 holes they played. Against Cink he made 14 birdies in 29 holes. And let me ask you this: Did you see Woods miss ay putts that he needed?

Now, let's get back to breaking that Byron Nelson record. Since Tiger doesn't like to reveal his schedule more than about a minute in advance, we can only speculate where he will play. But if you pay attention to Woods you notice that there is a definite pattern to where he plays, with only a few variables. The victory at the Accenture was Tiger's fourth in a row on the PGA Tour, going back to the BMW Championship last September. The way I have it figured, Woods' next seven tournaments will be played on courses where he has won a combined 22 times. Let's take a look:

Next up will be the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard at the Bayhill Club and Lodge. All Tiger has done there is win four consecutive times (2000-03). He'll follow that up with the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, where he has won three PGA Tour events. That sets him up for the Masters, and he already has four green jackets hanging in his locker at Augusta National Golf Club.

OK, that brings us to seven in a row. Next up for him after the Masters, I'm thinking, will be the Wachovia Championship at a Quail Hollow Club he loves and where he won last year. The Players Championship follows that, which might be the trickiest one in the mix. His only PGA Tour victory on the Stadium Course at Sawgrass came in 2001 and it is the only course in the next seven venues he will play where he has competed more than five times and not had multiple victories.

The Memorial, where Tiger has three consecutive victories (1999-01), will likely follow the Players. Again, like Bayhill, it's been a while since Woods has won at Muirfield Village Golf Club, but he does have a successful track record. That brings us to the U.S. Open with Tiger trying to tie Byron.

In one of those delightful twists of fortune that seem to befall great athletes when they are trying to accomplish great things, the Open is played this year on the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Club, where Woods has won the Buick Invitational six times, including the last four and five of the last six. It is as if the golf gods have reached down and drawn up the schedule for Woods.

Now the odds of all this happening are about a billion-to-one, but since there appears to be nothing even reasonably close to a rival for Woods anywhere on the scene, we might as well accept the fact that history is his only meaningful opponent. If he ties Nelson at the U.S. Open, where does be pass him?

That's a good question because it involves an interesting conflict for Woods. Two weeks after the U.S. Open is the Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, where Tiger won twice and finished second two other times. Also, Buick is one of Tiger's long-time endorsement partners. If history were on the line it would be difficult for him not to serve it up when Buick can benefit from the gigantic TV ratings the event would garner.

But the next week is the AT&T National, the second-year event at Congressional Country Club run by Woods and for which the Tiger Woods Foundation is the benefiting charity. That's a tough call, but it's a decision I think every golf fan, in fact every sports fan, would love to see Tiger have to make. The odds are a billion-to-one, but then again, how many times have to you heard a TV announcer say, "Tiger has no chance to get it close from here," only to see him follow the words by hitting it stiff? It's Tiger Woods we are talking about, and he is the likes of which we have never seen before.