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Tiger Rules
Gary Van Sickle
September 04, 2000
Tiger Woods blasted through the field at the NEC Invitational, confirming that when he's on, everyone else is playing for second place
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September 04, 2000

Tiger Rules

Tiger Woods blasted through the field at the NEC Invitational, confirming that when he's on, everyone else is playing for second place

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The Tiger Gap
By Every measure Woods is a giant step ahead of the other top players in the game.

WOODS

NUMBER 2

World Ranking

29.42

11.84

Ernie Els

Ryder Cup

1,305

430

Phil Mickelson

Presidents Cup

20,002,228

8,010,929

Mickelson

Sagarin Index

66.23

68.02

Els

Money List

$7,692,821

$3,387,457

Mickelson

Four victories, three major championships and 2,000 superlatives ago, Tiger Woods won the Memorial, a promising warmup for the U.S. Open three weeks later at Pebble Beach. After Woods's press conference, I cornered tournament host Jack Nicklaus. His face was flushed, and he looked tired. He had, after all, played in the Memorial's final round, then thrown on his gray blazer and shifted into host mode. I wanted to get Nicklaus's take on my theory that Woods might win the next four majors, a seemingly outlandish feat.

Woods had won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February and knows the course well from his Stanford days, I told Nicklaus, so he's likely to win the Open. If John Daly dominated the Old Course at St. Andrews with his length, the long-driving Woods would dominate it even more with his precision and matchless short game. You designed the PGA venue, Valhalla Golf Club, I reminded Nicklaus, so you know it favors a power player who hits it high and soft—Tiger's forte, as it was yours. Nicklaus graciously nodded. "Could be," he mused. "Valhalla is a strong course, but I can't imagine any course that doesn't favor Tiger. It doesn't matter what course you put him on, he'll play well."

Augusta National is the course everyone agrees is tailor-made for Woods, I continued, and the Masters is the major you said he would win more times than you and Arnold Palmer combined (10). The 2001 Masters would make four majors in a row for Tiger, and by my reckoning it's the surest bet of the bunch.

Four in a row. Nicklaus blinked. He let the notion sink in. No, he wasn't buying it. "Well, Tiger didn't win at Augusta this year," he pointed out. "He went in there right after that six-in-a-row streak. He couldn't have been playing any better. And he didn't win. Four in a row? I don't think that's fair to him. He's playing awfully well, but you can't win everywhere. Sometimes, you just don't make the putts."

Nicklaus was right—for players of his era. Golf in the 21st century is a brave new world, however. Woods has changed the rules. A bad bounce here or an unlucky break there doesn't affect the outcome when you're 12 shots in front. Here's a new rule: When Woods plays well, he removes the element of chance. He is that much better than his peers. Woods is 3 for 3 in majors since the Memorial, and you've got a better chance of finding someone who's voting for Pat Robertson for president than someone who's betting against Woods at Augusta next year.

Tiger Rules were in effect again last week at Firestone Country Club in Akron. With all the subtlety of a cement truck running over a grasshopper, Woods won the NEC Invitational, a 37-man outing worth $5 million—or $4 million for the 36 guys who were playing for second place. While he had struggled with his swing at the PGA Championship the previous week and had needed a playoff to beat Bob May, Woods had won his two other majors this year in blowouts. His victory at Firestone would be another one. (Oops. Blowouts and Firestone are touchy subjects in the Rubber City these days.)

You don't need more proof that Woods has changed the rules, do you? On Firestone's feared South Course he finished 21 under par, 11 strokes ahead of Justin Leonard and Phillip Price, who tied for second. Woods might have won by more, but he completed the third round, which he had started birdie-eagle-birdie, with 14 straight pars, which nearly qualifies as a slump for him, and he played Sunday while suffering from flu symptoms that forced him to make several rest room stops during the final round and one more just after he finished.

Funny, but there was talk that the PGA drama had been so draining for Woods that he might show up in Akron with a Bob-Maynia hangover. "It will be amazing if he comes back here the same way," Paul Azinger said of Woods before the NEC Invitational. "Hey, I'm not suggesting he's going to have a letdown. I'm just saying it's possible. I don't want to fire him up. Somebody fired him up last week by saying he wasn't going to win the PGA."

On the eve of the tournament European tour player Thomas Bj�rn theorized that Woods couldn't continue to dominate over a long period of time. "Tiger is by far the best player in the world and does things nobody else can do," Bj�rn said, "but he won't keep going. He'll run into trouble and start losing tournaments. Blowouts like Pebble Beach and the British Open, those are things he's going to do from time to time. The PGA shows more the way it's going to be. When the pressure was on, Tiger wasn't as impressive as he was in the other majors. It's easy when you're leading by seven or eight. In the PGA, he hit a lot of poor shots coming down the stretch."

Bj�rn should have used a lifeline for a second opinion. Five holes into last Thursday's round, Woods already had an eagle and two birdies. Those looking for a letdown began looking instead for a 59. Woods made a run at that magic number in each of the first two rounds. He was seven under through 12 holes on Thursday but sprayed some drives and bogeyed the 16th and the 18th to settle for a 64. He was eight under through 12 holes on Friday, bogeyed the 14th and shot 61, tying Jos� Mar�a Olazabal's tournament record, set in 1990.

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