While Tiger Woods was playing bumper pool in a creek last Friday, it occurred to some of us that maybe we shouldn't concede him the Grand Slam yet. When he skulled a greenside bunker shot a few holes later—and then fluffed his comeback pitch so badly that onlookers gasped—the idea began to take hold that some un-Tiger might have a chance to win next week's U.S. Open at Congressional.
To be sure, these heresies formed in our minds while Woods was shooting a back-nine 42 in the second round of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, putting him perilously close to missing his first cut as a professional. (Nobody looks invincible with a pants leg rolled up to the knee and a bare left foot steeped in murky water.) But Tiger's travails had to encourage those Tour players who still have their sights set on big goals: major championships, Vardon Trophies, money titles and the like.
Tom Lehman, for instance. Last year's leading money winner, British Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up didn't do anything special in the rain-lengthened Memorial—he finished at three-under-par 213 for 54 holes, 11 strokes behind the winner, Vijay Singh—but his practice demeanor was that of a man preparing to hunt dangerous game.
"I hit six drives this week that went phffft," he told swing coach Jim Flick last Friday, "into the right rough." Flick, watching Lehman blast drives the length of" the soggy range at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, could find little to fault. Lehman's explosive swing, like a triggered mousetrap, is hard to analyze with the naked eye. His practice balls, however, streaked downrange with a tight draw and a low, boring trajectory—frighteningly good.
"I think my swing is getting worse," Lehman said, unappeased. "Worse because I can't repeat it. The good swings may be better, but it's not consistent." To disprove his point, Lehman scorched several more drives to the foundation of a gray sky. "I'm doing a lot of things right," he finally conceded.
Flick, with nothing to add, gave him a paternal pat on the butt.
"There's a different measuring device now," the swing coach explained after-ward. " Tiger Woods." And as was the case when Jack Nicklaus dominated the Tour in the '60s, the best players realize that they'll have to play better to reach the top. " Arnold Palmer claimed that one of the best things that happened to him was Jack's coming on the scene," said Flick, "because he worked harder."
The problem with hard work as the prescription for Tigeritis is that most of the game's best have been taking that medicine for years. Nick Faldo trains like an Olympian. Singh lives on the practice range. Greg Norman revises his swing with the frequency of a software programmer (the Secret 5.1!) and changes swing coaches at the drop of a green jacket. All are capable of clipping Woods in a given major, but none are likely to show up at Congressional with 50 more yards off the tee and a 21-year-old's fearlessness.
The answer, some believe, is not hard work but attitude. "You need someone like Corey Pavin or Tom Lehman to look Tiger in the eye and say, 'I'm not afraid of you,' " Paul Azinger said after his Friday round. Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion, was just that kind of someone before a bout with cancer interrupted his career—a guy who didn't mind getting in the face of a gamesman such as Seve Ballesteros or an intimidator like Faldo. "I was kind of an angry player," said Azinger, looking wistful. "If people said I wasn't up to a challenge, it motivated me."
Pavin, a three-time Ryder Cup stalwart and the U.S. Open champ at Shinnecock in '95, has the attitude. Unfortunately, he seems to have misplaced his game. In 11 starts this season Pavin has cracked the top 25 only once and languishes at 123rd on the money list. Anyway, Tiger's tamer is more likely to be a player closer to his own age, someone like 26-year-old Phil Mickelson, second on last year's money list and a winner of 10 Tour events. "I think Mickelson is more than up to that challenge," Azinger said. "I thought he was the best player out here till Tiger arrived. Phil's got all the shots and no fear."