Monday, July 23, 2001

At last, a challenger for Tiger

        Until Sunday, Tiger Woods' main competition was a 61-year-old who hadn't won on Tour in 15 years. All that grinding time between rounds, when Woods fretted about the angle of his spine and the tragic way his birdie putts were rolling, was not aimed at the players he was playing against.

        Woods chased Jack Nicklaus. Tiger complimented his peers; he also acknowledged that if he was playing well, they'd disappear.

        He was right, until David Duval won the British Open Sunday. The British Open, love, where the rough looks like a wheatfield, trains roll past the golf course, there is no such thing as a sellout and the announcers say cool things like “I don't mean to rub
bish the caddie,” the way Ian Baker-Finch did Sunday, as he rubbished Ian Woosnam's caddie.

Stiff upper lip

        The British Open is the best major championship for identifying greatness, if only because it's available to every great player in the world. Mikko Ilonen, come on down. Now its greatness belongs to Duval, who has spent so many years chasing Tiger, you wondered if he still had a finishing kick. He did, and now, maybe, golf will have a rivalry worthy of comparisons to Nicklaus-Watson or Hogan-Nelson-Snead.

        While Woods was floundering in the wheat and sand, Duval was as cool as his Oakleys, winning by three. The two-part formula for defeating Tiger seems simple: (1) Put him on a course that makes him drive it straight. (2) Hope he can't.

        Even Woods can lose when he's off his game, on a track that doesn't suit his homerun hitter's swing. He looked a sight on Sunday at the par-3 12th, sending his tee shot into the right rough, then whacking a flier over the green, then blasting out of that and into a greenside pot bunker.

        Woods' triple-bogey there did him in, and opened every door for Duval who, after years of trying, finally walked through them all.

        Their ages are similar: Woods is 25, Duval 29. They both play longball with the driver. Beyond that, the similarities fade.

Contrasting styles

        Woods leaks charisma. Duval lacks it. Woods throws a red shirt and a broad smile to the TV masses on Sunday afternoon. Duval lurks behind those sunglasses, offering a tax-auditor personality.

        Casual golf fans will not tune in on any given Sunday to watch Duval win the Buick Open, unless they're doing it to root against Woods.

        Yet Tiger's aura doesn't freeze Duval like it does others when Woods' name is on the leaderboard. It helps Duval that he and Woods are friends. The two shared a private jet back from Scotland last July, after Woods won at St. Andrews and Duval dug a tunnel to China in a Road Hole bunker.

        Even as Woods won this year's Masters, Duval's 14-under finishing score would have won 59 of the previous 65 Masters. Duval knows what greatness feels like, having started 1999 with four wins before the Masters, including a record-tying 59 in one final round.

        You could argue whether Woods' domination was good for golf. It may be moot now. Woods is human. Another great player knows it. Let the rivalry begin.

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British Open coverage from Associated Press
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