The fluid yet powerful swing was, as always, to die for, like something out of an instructional manual, although Tiger Woods said later, "I half shanked that shot." No matter. His ball flew into the trees to the right of the par-3 8th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club last Saturday, caromed off a limb and settled on the green about 20 feet from the hole—closer to the flag-stick than the lovely shot struck by Steve Jones moments earlier. Woods dropped his club and laughed. Jones walked to the end of the tee box, turned and bowed to Woods. At the green Jones ceremoniously bent over and inspected Woods's ball, then said for all to hear, "Now you know why we can't beat the son of a gun!" The crowd roared in laughter. So did Woods.
For the first time in four years, however, Woods didn't get the last laugh at the slightly-less-rain-soaked-than-usual Memorial, Jack Nicklaus's tournament in Dublin, Ohio. There was no joy in Mudville. Mighty Tiger had struck out. Woods made the putt after the carom shot for an unlikely birdie. (For those keeping score at home, that goes down as a barkie.) Unfortunately for him, that was his only birdie of the third round. Woods, coming off a European tour win in Germany the previous week and trying to scratch his name into the record book with Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win the same tournament four years in a row, was never a factor at Muirfield Village. A final-round 66 lifted him to 22nd, his worst finish in a stroke-play event this year. (He shared 33rd after losing to Peter O'Malley in the first round of February's Accenture World Match Play.)
Woods had so thoroughly dominated the Memorial during his previous three wins that this year The Columbus Dispatch ceded him the title before the tournament began. "Today's opening round begins four days of coronation, not competition," the paper announced in the best Dewey-beats-Truman tradition. It was true, though, that everyone at Muirfield Village was geared up for Tiger Jam IV, so much so that Jim Furyk, who won with a Sunday charge that included a holed bunker shot for eagle, jokingly told reporters, "You're probably happy to see a new face up here." Now that you mention it, Jimbo....
Don't worry, though, we'll be seeing plenty more of Woods when he resurfaces in a couple of weeks at Bethpage Black for the June 13-16 U.S. Open. (Woods considered entering this week's Kemper Insurance Open. When he said on May 22 that there was a 50-50 chance he'd play, the tournament reportedly sold 10,000 tickets the next day.)
Woods's dominance is such that the main story line from now until play gets under way at Bethpage will be his pursuit of golf's Holy Grail, the Grand Slam. Or had you forgotten who had joined Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only back-to-back Masters champions last month? Just because Woods took last week off from his duties as the game's designated juggernaut, don't think he's not still on track for an unprecedented major sweep. Woods made only seven birdies in the first three rounds at Muirfield Village, but blame that on jet lag (although he refused to). Woods won a playoff against Colin Montgomerie in Germany on Monday, May 20, then flew home to Orlando that night before heading to Columbus on Wednesday, May 22. "Two days isn't much time to recover," said two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.
You could also blame Tiger's troubles on the greens at Muirfield Village. Going into the final round of the Memorial, Woods ranked 74th in putting out of the 75 players who made the cut. He regained his touch on Sunday, making seven birdies, which doubled his week's output, and looked ready to make some more history. He didn't get his four-peat, but he did run his streak of consecutive cuts made to 88, which leaves him about a year and a half from one of Byron Nelson's most formidable records (113). First, though, comes the annual hunt for the big prize.
"For years, talk of a Grand Slam has been laughable, ridiculed," says Brad Faxon. "Now it's something you've got to think about. Tiger has won four majors in a row and the first one this year. Nothing is out of his reach. Nobody's been able to handle pressure like this guy. I'm a believer: He's better than anybody who's ever played the game."
When the subject of the Grand Slam was broached with Nicklaus two years ago, he pooh-poohed the notion, saying it wasn't fair to put that kind of a burden on Woods. Last week Nicklaus changed his tune. "It's very realistic for Tiger," he said. "The courses don't matter. These guys hit the ball so far, it's simply a matter of how many putts they make. It's not the same game I played."
Nicklaus said he began to think seriously about the Grand Slam in the mid-1960s. "I'd won all four majors by '66," he said. "After that I got so depressed if I didn't win the Masters that I'd play poorly for a couple of months. I probably ruined four or five seasons until I realized how stupid that was, that the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA were important tournaments too."
Two majors in a year was as close as Nicklaus came to the Slam. His best chance was in '72. He won the first two legs but was bothered by a sore neck during the British Open at Muirfield and finished second, by a stroke, to Lee Trevino. In '75 Nicklaus wound up just three strokes shy of a possible Slam. He won the Masters and the PGA but missed the playoff in the U.S. Open by two shots—bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes during the final round at Medinah stick in his memory—and the playoff at the British Open by one.