A Graying Scottish woman named Wendy, who had just walked 18 holes with David Toms and Tiger Woods as their scorer, showed off her reward to a friend near the Old Course clubhouse early on Saturday evening. It was a third-round pairing sheet with Woods's autograph. Toms signed it, too, which Wendy wasn't as enthused about, but, of course, it would've been rude, Wendy remarked, not to ask Toms to sign it. Toms was playing in his first British Open and had shot a respectable 71 but had still lost ground to Woods, who by virtue of a five-under 67 had stretched his lead to six shots and left the 129th Open with nae wind, nae rain and nae suspense. "Toms played beautifully," Wendy told her friend as the two admired the souvenir, "but Tiger made him look ordinary."
Welcome to major championship golf in the new millennium. Everyone whose first name isn't an animal is made to look ordinary. "If I were in my 20s, and I knew I had no hope of being considered the best player, that would be tough," said 40-year-old former PGA champion Paul Azinger, who tied for seventh. "In my 20s I was in an era with no dominant player, and a lot of us held out hope that maybe we could make that Number 1 ranking. Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, those guys were great players, and they kept Jack Nicklaus from winning a lot of tournaments, but they were never considered the best players of their era. You've got a whole host of players like that today."
Now that Woods has identified himself as the next Nicklaus—or better—the task at hand is to identify the next generation of Nearly Men, those players whose career accomplishments will be diminished and very likely overshadowed from going toe-to-toe with Woods. Two familiar candidates stepped forward again at the Old Course. One was Ernie Els, who became the first man to finish second in three straight majors, which, depending upon your half-full/half-empty view, was a remarkable feat of consistency or a dubious achievement. The other was David Duval, who got to within three shots of Woods on Sunday but ended up as Road Hole roadkill.
Their futures, though bright, come with questions. How many major titles will Woods's presence cost them? Will they ever get their due? Or, like Billy Casper and Bruce Crampton and all those others who played in Nicklaus's shadow, will we even know what is due them? As it stands, Duval, 28, still doesn't have his major and after his 71st-hole train wreck, doesn't even have his No. 2 world ranking. He dropped to third, behind Els, who has won two U.S. Opens but is wondering whether he has what it takes to beat Woods.
On Thursday morning Els flipped on the television to get a glimpse of the first-round pin positions. He knew Tiger was playing early, and he knew what to expect, but that didn't make what he saw any less demoralizing. Woods was at it again, piecing together a flawless opening round of 67. "When you see Tiger at five under, and you haven't even started your round," Els said on Thursday night, shaking his head, "you know you've got your work cut out."
Still, for a day, it looked as if the British might not be a sequel to Woods's 15-shot U.S. Open romp. Els one-upped Woods with a first-round 66 and talked like a man who had had enough. "If he beats me by 15 this week," Els said of Woods, "there should be an inquiry."
There was no inquiry. Woods won by a mere eight shots over Els and persistent Dane Thomas Bj�rn. Duval closed the gap heading into the back nine, but then slipped to 11th after needing four swipes to escape the feared Road Hole bunker en route to a quadruple-bogey 8. Woods had reached the 17th with a comfy nine-shot lead. "You know, the guy's 24 and he's lapping us every time," Els said on Sunday. "I'm 30, I'm supposed to be in my prime, and I know a lot about the game and this golf course. When you've got a guy who's fearless and playing with so much confidence, well, it's tough to get to that level."
This comes from a player who reboubled his efforts this year. Els admittedly was distracted between owning houses in three countries, getting married and becoming a father. His career has been a mix of brilliance and maddening mediocrity. He switched teachers, going from Robert Baker to David Leadbetter. Els has five second-place finishes on the PGA Tour in 2000 to show for his hard work. Woods won four of those events.
Els's Open hopes died on Saturday. He bounced back from a pedestrian 72 in the second round to birdie five of the first 10 holes of the third round. Then he blew a tee shot into the gorse at the 12th, a drivable par-4, and took a double bogey. "In the past you could get away with that because the other guys were going to make mistakes, too," Els said. "You can't do that now. Tiger doesn't make mistakes."
Duval played Woods-like golf during an 18-month stretch from late 1997 to early '99, piling up 11 victories. His British resurgence, sparked by the return of his putting touch, came while playing with a back that bothered him so much that he stood during pressroom interviews. A session with Tom Boers, a back specialist who has worked on Fred Couples and Davis Love III, apparently helped the injury, which has hindered him since just after the U.S. Open.