Muirfield Village Golf Club is one of the game's most challenging tests and the masterpiece of Jack Nicklaus's career as a course designer, yet last week the place was turned into a well-manicured executive course. The Memorial is one of the classiest events on the PGA Tour and always has a glossy field, yet last week the tournament became an uncompetitive rout. Tiger Woods can do those sorts of things. Only Woods can make big-time courses, tournaments and opponents seem small.
This shouldn't come as news, but Woods remains the king of golf. Long live the king. Only five minutes ago, some of us weren't so sure. After that stirring run at the start of the season, when he extended his winning streak to six, he began to look—sorry, Your Highness—human. He had chances to win the Buick Invitational, the Nissan Open and the World Match Play but didn't. Oh, he won at Bay Hill, miniaturizing Davis Love III in the process, but then Hal Sutton outplayed Woods at the Players Championship, he stumbled at the Masters again, and he coughed up a two-shot lead to Lee Westwood in Germany. Ach du lieber!
Silly us. Just as we started to think that, hey, maybe Woods isn't as solid as a Zurich bank, that maybe someone like Sutton, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie, Jesper Parnevik or Vijay Singh would be a better bet in the upcoming U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Woods sent us a little reminder. He played 29 holes at mighty Muirfield—from the 5th hole last Friday through the 15th on Saturday—in 17 under par. That stretch constituted the heart of his rounds of 63 and 65, leaving him 17 under after 54 holes and sitting on a six-shot lead. After waiting out a day of rain, Woods finished the job on Monday, shooting a 70 for a 19-under 269 to beat Ernie Els and Justin Leonard by five strokes. The Memorial was his 12th Tour win in 15 months and the 19th of his four-year career. "He absolutely murdered the golf course," said tournament host Nicklaus. "That's unbelievable. He amazes me."
Duh, Jack. This is Tiger Woods. This is what he does. "The amazement has kind of gone away," said Justin Leonard, who trailed Woods by seven shots going into the rain-delayed final round despite a 66, highlighted by a hole in one, on Saturday. "On a week like this on a course that suits him, you come to expect it. Certainly, players appreciate what he's doing, but we're not as surprised as we would have been two or three years ago. It's fun to watch. It's not fun to play against."
The only one not impressed with Woods's 63 was the guy who shot it, which says all you need to know about his standards. To Greg Chalmers of Australia, who played with Woods, "It was like he always had the perfect shot for the hole and total control of the ball." Tiger thought that the round was fortune-filled and that he neither struck the ball particularly well nor directed it exactly where he had intended. As he came off the course, he told his swing coach, Butch Harmon, "Meet me on the range. We've got work to do."
Never mind that he had birdied three of the par-5s or that he had stiffed iron shots for tap-in birdies on the last two holes. Woods didn't feel that his swing was right, so he and Harmon spent 45 minutes on the range, 10 minutes fixing the alleged problem and the rest of the time making sure that the fix took hold. The next day, striking the ball much better, thank you, he shot the 65.
Here we are in June, and we're asking the same question we posed in February. Can anyone beat this guy, especially at Pebble Beach, where Woods has already won this year? "On a given week, yes. But on a consistent basis, there's nobody," says Paul Goydos. "Tiger is dominant at everything. People mention Brad Faxon or Jim Furyk when they talk about the best putter on Tour. Tiger is as good or better than they are. Guys mention Justin Leonard as the best chipper. Tiger is a better chipper. People talk about David Duval and Greg Norman driving the ball long and straight. Tiger is longer and straighter. He is overwhelming the game right now."
For a moment this spring, the promise of parity seemed to be in the air. First it was Sutton taking Woods down a peg in their head-to-head duel at the Players. Two weeks later at Augusta, where Woods is always a favorite (asked last week if he was surprised that the Memorial was his first successful title defense, he nodded his head. "I thought I would have done it in '98 at this course in Georgia," he said coyly), Singh rose up to win his second major. Since then Mickelson has won for the second and third time this season, and Parnevik has added a second title. Even Montgomerie has heated up, winning twice in the last four weeks in Europe.
Any pretournament hype about a wide-open Open, though, was effectively quashed by Woods at the Memorial. "When you show up at a tournament and Tiger's there, you know he's the guy to beat," says Steve Flesch, who also had a hole in one last week and tied for fifth, nine shots behind Woods. "It's his power. There are 15 or 20 guys who are going to reach most of the par-5s in two. Tiger gets to every one. Whether it's working out or working on your game, everyone on Tour is subconsciously thinking, Somehow, I've got to get better."
To the fans, Woods has been an answer to a prayer. To the players, he has been more like a curse. Remember back to the vast wasteland that was the PGA Tour in the early '90s? Paul Azinger fondly recalls those days. "The media talked about it for years—no dominant player, no dominant player," he says. " Greg Norman was as close as you were going to get. There was outrage that no one could dominate the sport. It was sickening. Now there's a dominant player. It wasn't but three years ago that players were saying, 'The days when somebody is going to kick butt and dominate are gone.' They've returned and with a vengeance. Before you know it, everybody will be complaining that there's only one guy to beat, and if Tiger's not there, why even bother?"