Will he or won't he? Tiger Woods's latest date with destiny arrives next week, when the 129th British Open is played at St. Andrews, Scotland. He goes to that tournament as the most overwhelming favorite the game has ever known. Woods has more working for him than the momentum of his rampage at the U.S. Open, a 15-stroke victory that left indelible imprints on his competitors' psyches as well as on the record books. Woods will enjoy a tremendous advantage on the Old Course, an expansive canvas that so rewards length that John Daly overpowered the links the last time the Open Championship came to town, in 1995. Emerging from two weeks off following the U.S. Open, Woods finished a lackluster 23 rd last week at the Advil Western Open at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, in the Chicago area, but no matter. Because this was the last Stateside run-up before the British Open, Woods and his chances at the Old Course dominated conversation throughout the tournament.
So, will he or won't he? "No one is invincible, but on that course Tiger is pretty close," says Jim Furyk, who tied for third at the Western, two shots out of a playoff between Robert Allenby and Nick Price, which Allenby won with a par on the first hole.
" Daly won with his length," says Lee Janzen, 15th in Chicago. "He took all the trouble out of play. Tiger has the same length, but he also has Nicklaus's mind and Seve's short game. So what do you think?"
"The game's not as easy as Tiger is making it look right now," says Price, the '94 British Open champ and a voice in the wilderness because he is not ready to concede the tournament before it has begun. "We all know he's the best player in the world, but the bottom line is this: He can't win every time he tees it up."
As is always the case with Woods, looking to Jack Nicklaus's career provides some useful context. Nicklaus's dominance began with his victory at the '62 U.S. Open and effectively ended with his triumph at the '80 PGA. This remarkable run comprised 75 majors, of which Nicklaus won 17, for a .227 batting average. From his epochal victory at the '97 Masters to last month's U.S. Open, Woods played in 14 majors, winning three—a .214 average. (Good thing these guys aren't baseball players.) Even the most dominant golfers in history lose more than three out of every four majors, and winning back-to-back majors in the same year is such a daunting task that Nicklaus did it only once (the '72 Masters and U.S. Open).
Then again, Woods has constructed a legend out of defying the odds, and more than the usual amount of mojo is at work here. This British Open is imbued with significance that far exceeds the round numbers of the millennium. The setting is the home of golf, St. Andrews, and with a victory Woods will become only the fifth, and the youngest, player to have won a career Grand Slam. "He's loving it," says Woods's buddy and Isleworth, Fla., neighbor, Stuart Appleby. "He's pumped about getting the career Slam, and he's pumped about doing it at St. Andrews."
There are really three British Opens: the ones in England, which are nice; the ones in Scotland, which are better; and the ones in St. Andrews, which are best of all. Nicklaus knew it, and Woods does too. "St. Andrews is what the game really means," Nicklaus said following his win there in '70. "I wanted to be part of St. Andrews. I wanted to win on the Old Course."
Says Woods, "To have an opportunity to complete the career Grand Slam at the course where it all started is very symbolic." Woods has treated the game's two other great cathedrals—Augusta National and Pebble Beach—with all the delicacy of Godzilla sightseeing in Manhattan. The key to both victories was outstanding putting. It was shoddy work with the flat stick at the Western that sent Woods skidding toward his worst showing of the year. (Remarkably, the Western and his 18th-place finish in the Nissan Open are the only times in 12 tournaments that Woods has been out of the top five this year.)
Woods's ball striking was solid during the first round of the Western (he hit 16 greens), but 33 ghastly jabs with the putter doomed him to a two-under 70. He followed with 31 more putts on Friday (shooting 69) and, after 28 putts during a third-round 70, was moved to say, "I'm putting like I need a Seeing Eye dog. It's so bad it's a joke. Some weeks even the bad putts go in. This week the good putts are lipping out, and the bad ones aren't even close."
Is Woods concerned that there will be a carryover into the British? "No, not at all," he says. "I was putting pretty bad going into the U.S. Open, and that turned out all right."