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Michael Silver
June 24, 2002
With a wire-to-wire win at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods took a giant step toward the Grand Slam
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June 24, 2002

Halfway Home

With a wire-to-wire win at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods took a giant step toward the Grand Slam

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They embraced like soldiers returned from a grueling battle, brought together by the futility of their cause. Darkness had descended on New York's Bethpage State Park on Sunday, and the loudest, most brazen crowd in U.S. Open history had dispersed when Sergio Garc�a spotted Jim MacKay, the caddie for fellow failed warrior Phil Mickelson, on a walkway outside the clubhouse. Garc�a, fresh off watching playing partner Tiger Woods secure the second leg of the Grand Slam, told MacKay, "I'm sorry I couldn't put more pressure on him." As he turned to leave the grounds, the impetuous Spaniard stopped and gave the caddie a heartfelt hug. "You know what?" Garc�a said. "It's just a matter of time."

Perhaps, but the clock keeps ticking, and guess which relentless 26-year-old keeps kicking butt? Woods, in winning this blessedly unruly U.S. Open by three strokes over Mickelson, took home his eighth career major and continued to siphon the suspense out of his sport. As with the Masters in April, Woods won going away despite a merely workmanlike final round, and there's scant hope that things will be any different at next month's British Open at Muirfield in Scotland. The man has won seven of the last 11 majors and with hardly a hint of drama: He was the only player to finish under par at Bethpage, and he led wire to wire. It sounds crazy, but wake us up in August when his Grand Slam is almost complete.

At least this much is compelling: After a wondrous weekend of wild whacks, wisecracks and wet hacks, the Tiger hunters are on the loose. Not only are the world's next-best golfers desperate to derail him, but also a majority of the sport's fans—as represented by 42,500 chatterboxes each day at Bethpage—would love to see Woods at least squirm. If Garc�a is correct, and it's inevitable that a bona fide threat will emerge, that dude, whoever he is, had better get with the program. "I know it will happen eventually," Mickelson insisted after his valiant weekend run at Woods. "Having the chance to compete against arguably the greatest player of all time is a special opportunity, and I'm getting closer to breaking through."

For now, as the four-day adventure on the Bethpage Black Course confirmed, Woods is Long Island iced tea to his foes' Diet Snapple. He has a sizable edge on them physically and mentally—and make no mistake, this was a highly emotional event. With the Open's being staged on a municipal course for the first time, in the shadow of the city that doesn't sleep, the overflowing galleries provided a constant barrage of blunt critiques and heartfelt passion. Imagine golfers lining up putts in front of the rightfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium, and you can picture the scene at the 17th green, where fans chanted, "Let's go Mick-el-son," and sang Happy Birthday to the second-place finisher (he turned 32 on Sunday), and where one heckler gurgled, "Hey, Phil—are those A cups?" Classy.

On paper the People's Open was won by the people's champion, as Woods grew up among the ball-mashing masses in Southern California. "I've slept in cars to get tee times," Woods said on Sunday. "I grew up playing at public facilities, too." Yet judging by the disparity in crowd noise, you'd have thought Woods was a pampered country clubber while Mickelson was the second coming of Arnold Palmer. Phil's Phan Club was so rowdy on Sunday that he was forced to back away from a 22-foot birdie putt on the 14th green because spectators lining the 15th tee, some 100 yards away, were chanting his name. ( Mickelson settled for par, but the place still went berserk.)

Even Garc�a, who sparred with spectators during the first three days—most notably, he made what appeared to be an obscene gesture to some loudmouths on the 16th fairway on Friday—got an inordinate amount of love on Sunday. It seemed that the New Yorkers, having dogged El Ni�o for everything from his incessant waggle while re-gripping his club to his famous girlfriend, tennis star Martina Hingis, came to respect Garc�a for his fortitude.

Most of all, of course, fans wanted to see Garc�a—or Mickelson, or anyone—stare down Woods. Pandemonium reigned late in Saturday's round when, within seconds, Mickelson birdied the 17th hole and Garc�a, after sinking a birdie putt on 16, turned and pointed toward Mickelson in a gesture of unity.

To be fair, Woods got plenty of applause, but it was a more muted reaction. Casual golf fans admire Woods, perhaps even revere him, but his steely demeanor on the course and his inaccessibility off it make it hard for them to get close to him. For one thing, while he seems pleasant enough when he's not inside the ropes, the man almost never displays anything other than a focused scowl during play. Has any great golfer—hell, any great athlete—ever looked so grim while doing his job? Throw in the machinelike efficiency with which he dispatches his foes, and the distance grows. He got one of his biggest ovations on Thursday after ducking into a portable toilet en route to the 15th tee, then emerging a minute later, as if by relieving himself he had revealed his humanity. "Are you guys clapping because I'm potty-trained?" Woods quipped.

Cheering for Woods in a major is like rooting for rain in a thunderstorm. On Thursday and Friday, in whipping through rounds of 67 and 68, Woods was the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal throwing down dunks on helpless centers. On the weekend Tiger wisely ground out rounds of 70 and 72; his play was akin to a dominant football team's protecting a lead by running the ball in the second half. Anytime anyone got too close, Woods answered. On Sunday, when birdies on 11 and 13 brought Mickelson to within two, Woods quickly killed the buzz by blistering a drive on the par-5 13th, then barely missing a 20-foot eagle putt before tapping in for a birdie.

As with pal Michael Jordan, perhaps his only American athletic peer, Woods overwhelms opponents with his talent. Of equal importance is his superior conditioning, an almost insufferable competitive drive and a vicious work ethic. At 8:40 p.m. on Saturday, well after his competitors had left the grounds, Woods wrapped up an hourlong session on the range. He cut through the darkness and walked upstairs to his locker, where he found a handwritten apology from Garc�a, who, after shooting a 74 in relentless rain the previous day, had made some inflammatory comments. Referring to Woods, who had completed his Friday round before the weather was at its worst, Garc�a said, "It always seems like there's one guy who's lucky when he needs to be." He also took a shot at the U.S. Golf Association, saying, "If Tiger would've been out there, the USGA would have stopped play."

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