Upon reading Garc�a's note, Woods broke into a huge smile. Then a reporter asked Woods if he was having any fun playing this tournament. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I just love competing. The fans are great; you have no choice but to enjoy them. Really, this is great."
Yeah, great for you, the cynics in the Open field might have replied. Garc�a was hardly the only player insinuating that fortune was smiling upon Woods at Deathpage. At 7,214 yards, the par-70 course was the longest in U.S. Open history, an edge for big hitters like Woods and Mickelson. On Friday the windy and rainy conditions left many struggling to clear the deep heather on holes 10 and 12, at 492 and 499 yards, respectively, the longest par-4s ever in an Open. That USGA officials refused to provide a rescue from the fescue by moving up the tees rankled many players. "If they keep doing this, they'll take the fun out of the game, because only a few guys can win," groused Nick Price, who shook off Friday's 75 and rallied to tie for eighth. "But maybe that's what the USGA wants." Later, asked if he felt the USGA is tailoring Open courses for Woods in particular, Price, who has won three majors, winked and said, "It should be obvious to you, too."
Nick Faldo, a winner of six majors, compared Friday's round to "fighting in the jungle," and we all know Tiger is king. "Tiger loves it when conditions are tough because he's 20 to 30 percent better than anybody, so the tougher it is, the more he stands out," said Faldo, who tied for fifth. While his peers spent the day hacking out of wet, gnarly rough, Woods jacked up his game, then waited for his pursuers to falter. They have to catch me, Woods kept telling himself during Saturday's steady round, knowing nobody would. By the end of the day he had stretched his lead by a shot, to four.
Sunday's pairing with Garc�a promised a compelling fight. Sergio's salty comments, and their subsequent tabloid exposure, inspired comparisons to classic New York feuds: Piazza versus Clemens; Stern versus Imus; Jay-Z versus Nas. But Woods and Garc�a made nice-nice, and the showdown fizzled. Though Woods three-putted the first two holes for bogey, Serge made no surge. Garc�a had a three-putt of his own at number 3 and proceeded to bogey three of the next nine. He made his only birdie on the 14th and shot 74 to finish fourth, six shots back. "I had him at the beginning, and I let him off," said Garc�a. "He did what he had to do, but he did it because I let him."
Until Garc�a overcomes Woods and wins a major, such statements will carry a whiff of delusion. Then again, Garc�a is only 22; imagine the frustration of Mickelson, who is 0 for 40 in Grand Slam events. Criticized for risky play and collapses in big events, Mickelson played smart, gutsy golf at Bethpage, and he left as a better, prouder player. Now his growing legion of fans will dare to dream: Can Mickelson stand up to Woods at Muirfield the way Lee Trevino did 30 years ago to Jack Nicklaus, the last man before Tiger to win the first two legs of the Slam?
That was one of many possibilities to ponder at the 18th green as the deflated gallery followed its rousing send-off of Mickelson with a warm ovation for Woods and Garc�a on their long walk up the fairway. It was nearly dark now, and the crescent moon was shimmering above. Noting the obligatory presence of Rudolph Giuliani, New York City's former mayor, a male spectator yelled, " Rudy for President!" and a cheer ensued.
Seconds later, a female voice broke the silence: " Rudy could beat Tigah."
Someday, perhaps soon, somebody will.