Thursday, May 31, 2001

Another challenge for Tiger

Nicklaus changes course to counteract star

        DUBLIN — You do not trifle with Jack Nicklaus. You do not humiliate his handiwork. You do not step up to the tee on one of his par-5s and address the ball with something as slight as a 2-iron. You do not torment the Golden Bear lest he bite you back.

        If Tiger Woods is to win a third straight Memorial Tournament this weekend, he's going to have to consider some different club choices. After Woods mocked Muirfield's 539-yard No.11 last May, repeatedly reaching the green with two successive 2-iron shots, Nicklaus lengthened the hole by 28 yards.

        “How do you play a (par-) five with a 2-iron?” Nicklaus asked. “That really upsets me.”

        Nicklaus' frustration was facetious, but his concerns are sincere. Golf technology is the natural enemy of golf architecture, and Woods with modern tools is the kind of player who can make the most rigorous layout play like a Putt Putt course.

        When Woods won the Memorial last year, narrowly missing the tournament record at 19 under par, former champion Paul Azinger proclaimed that Tiger could turn the par-72 layout “into a par-68.” When he's playing as he is now, Woods makes the most treacherous shots look like so many tap-ins.

        “I really feel like I'm swinging the club the way I know I can,” Woods said Wednesday afternoon. “That's kind of fun to be able to step up there and hit shots that I haven't hit in a while. It's nice to see that flight and that trajectory, and the divot pattern, and the overall feeling of my swing.”

        He was slouching ever so slightly in a luxurious wing chair on an elevated stage — a posture and setting suggestive of a king on his throne, and entirely appropriate. When Woods is satisfied with the state of his game, it usual ly portends another trophy presentation.

        With the possible exception of Nicklaus, no other golfer of any vintage — and perhaps no other athlete — has achieved such undisputed preeminence so young. To put Woods in context, we soon may need to compare him to Mozart or Alexander The Great.

        Five months after his 25th birthday, Woods needs one more major championship to match the career to tal of such legends as Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Last month's Masters victory completed his quasi-Grand Slam of four successive majors over two calendar years. In two weeks, he resumes his quest to win the slam in a single year, at the U.S. Open in Tulsa.

        Should he win the Memorial this week — or the PGA Championship in August — Woods will become the first player since Tom Watson to win the same event three years in succession. As the holes get longer, and their hazards more horrific, his odds will only improve.

        “You don't Tiger-proof a golf course,” Nicklaus said. “I think you do exactly the opposite.”

        If Nicklaus succeeds in forcing Woods to forsake his 2-iron for a driver on No.11, he makes the hole progressively difficult for lesser players. Over 72 holes, increased difficulty tends to reduce the random qualities of competition. The operating premise of the U.S. Open is to cultivate challenging conditions — not to humiliate the best players, but to identify them.

        “I think if you keep making the golf courses longer, that's only going to help us who hit the ball further,” Woods said.

        Not that he needs any help.

        E-mail Past columns at

Memorial always memorable to Woods
Local golfer aims to follow Woods' lead


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