Thursday, February 10, 2000

Tiger has golf world by its tail

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tiger Woods is toying with us. He has grabbed the game of golf, turned it upside down and shaken it until all its coins fall at his feet.

        He has taken the PGA Tour to a new level: predictability.

        “If it's mind-boggling to you, it's that much more to me,” Ralph Landrum said. “He's won six tournaments in a row, and I would go back and say, "How many guys have made six cuts in a row?' I guarantee you no one else has finished in the top 10 in the last six events.”

        Before Landrum built his golf empire in Northern Kentucky, he spent three years on the PGA Tour. He finished eighth in the U.S. Open in 1983 and once cashed a check for $38,000 for a second-place finish in Memphis.

        Landrum knows how hard it is to win. What he can't comprehend is how Woods keeps winning, week after week.

        “What he's doing now is far superior to what Jack Nicklaus ever did,” Landrum said. “It doesn't mean he's going to carry it out for 30 years like Nicklaus did. But the field is deeper now. A guy like Justin Leonard has only won two or three (tournaments) in his career, and this guy has won six in a row.”

Too tough for tour
        When Nicklaus was 24 years old, he had won 12 events on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods has won 17 titles entering this weekend's Buick Invitational and so dominates the sport that British bookmaker William Hill has slashed the odds against his winning a grand slam from 200-1 to 80-1.

        “He's in another dimension,” said Ken Venturi, the CBS commentator who won the 1964 U.S. Open. “Those other guys are going to have to raise the bar.”

        Most guys, however, can raise the bar only so high. Those who can match Woods' power off the tee can't compete with the precision of his pitching wedge. Some who have all the physical technique cannot approach Tiger's mental toughness.

        “I think what really sets him apart is the total package,” Landrum said. “Physically, he can hit it where only a few other guys can hit it. Plus, he must have the ability to focus better than anybody else. He's more prepared, more physically talented and mentally tougher than anybody else. That's a pretty good combination.”

        Tiger Woods was marked for greatness long before he exploded onto the scene in the 1997 Masters. A year earlier, after a practice round at Augusta, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer agreed the precocious amateur could collect more green jackets than the two of them combined. Nicklaus won six Masters; Palmer four.

Adding finesse to power
        Tiger Woods was then a prodigy. Now he's a production line. He has harnessed his otherworldly talent by cutting down on his swing and playing better tactical golf.

        Woods still can overwhelm the competition when circumstances require — and has put on 20 pounds for additional power — but he picks his spots with greater care. He's more likely now to reach for a 2-iron on holes where he once instinctively hit driver.

        Two years ago, Woods finished second on the tour in average driving distance (296.3 yards) but only 114th in driving accuracy. By adopting a more compact swing and a more varied club selection, Woods has lost some yardage but found more fairways.

        He is no more timid on the greens, however, ramming putts toward the hole without fear of leaving himself too long a come-backer. Other players tap at the ball hoping it will stop trickling at the cup. Tiger Woods dares to drill it.

        Only a player supremely confident in his skill could have made up seven shots in seven holes against some of the best players in the world, as Woods did Monday at Pebble Beach. Only a guy as gifted as Tiger Woods could expect to make eagle.

        “The thing about it is he's so in tune,” Landrum said. “Before he hits it, he sees nothing but where he wants it to go. He looks good doing it and getting ready to do it. I don't know how you can say enough good things about him.”

        No other contemporary athlete commands such praise. What's scary is that Tiger Woods is just getting started.



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