June 19, 2008

Stringing 'Em Along

All the pressure is supposed to be on Tiger Woods, but he regards it as an integral part of a balanced diet, the breakfast of champions

Tiger Woods held his pose after his rocket launch on the 18th tee, all the better to gauge important components such as trajectory and direction. Michael Jordan froze in place, too, with arm outstretched before his final shot went swish for a sixth championship. But not even Michael won four of those in a row. And before that, before Tiger the man befriended the giant he would replace as the world's most famous athlete, Tiger the child studied Jack Nicklaus, who became the greatest of golfers by implementing a style that dazzled with brawn yet relied on brains. But not even Jack won four of these in a row.

This, then, is the question. Tiger has broken a lot of hearts on his quadruple bypass to history, so who wears out first, him or the other guys? When Woods compressed Augusta National to win by 12 strokes in 1997, when he turned out the lights early at the 2000 U.S. and British Opens, they talked about a slaughter rule. But how do you legislate against this gear? Tiger owns the close ones, too, like last August's PGA where birdies were required, and this Masters, where, at age 25, he did nothing particularly notable except tiptoe around comrades felled by nerve gas.

Now there's this method to his madness, perfected by Nicklaus, who patiently waited for foes to draw the wrong club or the short breath. Jack was proud of how often he won and just as pleased about how frequently he let someone else lose. All the pressure is supposed to be on Tiger, but making like Michael, he regards it as nourishment, an integral part of a balanced diet, the breakfast of champions. Greatness means shifting the anxiety of the chase to those who are chasing. In a sport with no defense, he compels others to err, anyway.

Whether Woods' conquest last Sunday constitutes a Grand Slam is debatable; the possibility once was too remote to require much thought. Only a few years ago, golf held search parties for a superstar. But when Tiger logged six consecutive victories over two seasons, he detached it from the record of Byron Nelson, who won his 11 in one season. Applying Tiger's logic to Tiger's current binge, then, no, it's not a Grand Slam. Maybe a Nike Number, but not a Grand Slam. Tiger says now he'll put those four trophies on his coffee table and let us do the labeling. If he's changed his mind, that's fair. He's changed everything else.

For sure, Tiger has body-slammed all comers. Phil Mickelson may not have ulcers, but he gives them. Had he converted half the makable putts he missed, the green jacket is his instead of a strait jacket. David Duval surged, Ernie Els lurked. Golf is blessed to have this array of young talent in place. That's why last week's Masters will stand as the most anticipated, most hyped, most examined major only until June, when it's Tulsa time. But while Tiger hones in on that, his lodge brothers must dwell on the succinct summation of Woods' third-round playing companion.

Chris DiMarco, who vied with Mark Calcavecchia for the Edward Scissorshands Award bestowed on the low claw, observed Tiger for four hours Saturday and was rather impressed. He seems to be taking it easy out there, offered the Masters rookie, and still Tiger signs for 68. That is par for Woods at Augusta National, DiMarco also said, and he should know. On the difficult No. 5, an uphill par 4 of 435 yards, Tiger drove it beyond the crosswalk with no roll. He had a little wedge to the green; DiMarco had a little 7-iron. Ergo, Tiger retains the fury as a complement to his finesse.

Pick your poison. Augusta National's greens were more Southern hospitality than Southern fried, but conditions that accommodated more players still best rewarded the best. Tiger didn't hit it as far as he did four years ago, or post as many low numbers, and when it was all over, he turned a bit mushy. "I lost it," said Tiger. Meanwhile, the players who staged musical electric chairs behind him returned to the locker room, one by one, wearing that glazed look.

They might have to hold their poses, too. After his string was stopped in 1945, Byron Nelson expressed relief, for he was exhausted. But Tiger Woods can't wait until tomorrow. That's some coffee table he's got there.