2002: Perspective - Saturdays no longer so swell for Woods

Moving day, my butt. A strong argument could be made that Tiger Woods lost a potential 2002 Grand Slam because of a Saturday at Muirfield and a Saturday at Hazeltine.

I sat down on a Saturday – “losing day” – to compose a column on Woods, Annika Sorenstam and their impassioned quest for major championships. So what happened? The graphite shaft on my pencil snapped in half as I was preparing an outline. I borrowed a pen, but I didn’t like the grip. Furthermore, I kept getting the pen stuck behind me on the downstroke. Everything I wrote seemed to bend to the right.

As if that weren’t enough, my rhythm was off. The upper part of my arm wasn’t in sync with the lower part. My pen plane was all wrong. I felt a looping motion from the outside to the inside. One of my friends suggested I was sitting too close to the notepad, but by that time I had lost all confidence.

I don’t really need a writing instructor, just as Tiger doesn’t really need a golf instructor, but maybe I should spend some time with my old adviser, Butch Harmonious. Butch always stresses fundamentals. “Subjects and verbs,” he always says. “Subjects and verbs.”

The fact that Tiger has lost two consecutive majors because he folded his tent on Saturday is no mystery to me. Golf is like writing: Just when you think you have it figured out, it slaps you in the face. Woods is not immune to rough treatment.

At the British Open, he shot a third-round 81 on moving day. He moved, all right, albeit to a part of town that he figured he’d never inhabit. Tiger ended up six strokes behind champion Ernie Els for 72 holes, but consider that he lost seven strokes to Els (39 to 32) on Saturday’s back nine.

At the PGA Championship, Tiger made only one birdie during a third-round 72. For the record, here are his cumulative stroke averages for the 2002 majors: first round, 69.5; second round, 68.5; third round, 72.25; fourth round, 68.75. Ouch! On losing day, he was almost three strokes higher than any other round.

Weather was a huge factor on Saturday at the British and PGA. An unrelenting wind invaded the PGA. Wind, rain and cold combined for nasty conditions at the British. This was entirely appropriate: The last time I looked, golf was still an outdoor game, subject to the whimsy of Mean Mother Nature.

You might say I am picking on Tiger, but I do this only because he is, with apologies to Muhammad Ali, the greatest. Jack Nicklaus has him on longevity, but Tiger is chasing and overtaking all Jack’s records with an eraser.

The current rundown of victories in professional majors has Nicklaus on top with 18 and Walter Hagen in second place with 11. However, let’s be fair about this. The Western Open, which Hagen won five times, widely was considered a major. So figuring the Western Open in the major rotation until 1934, when the Masters was first played, Hagen has 16. No other player has reached double digits.

Ben Hogan and Gary Player are tied for third with nine, while Woods and Tom Watson are next with eight. Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Gene Sarazen have seven apiece, one more than Lee Trevino. Byron Nelson has five.

Hogan and Snead each won the Western Open twice, but these victories came well after the Masters had established itself as a major championship.

My formula, substituting the Masters for the Western, equalizes the majors at four per year from 1916, when the PGA Championship was first played.

When Tiger loses a major, it is good for the game. Why? Because it gives hope to all would-be champions, of course, but there is a more significant reason.

So often, Tiger turns golf into child’s play. He appears to be able to hit every par-5 in two. He regularly drills 275-yard tee shots with his 2-iron. Only three elements seem able to stop him, and usually it takes all three in tandem: narrow fairways, high rough and wild weather.

When Tiger stumbles in much the same way we stumble, it is good for the game. It demonstrates that nobody is above the law, so to speak. It puts a more human face on Tiger. It reminds us that golf and nature will not be conquered.

Looking ahead, the 2003 majors will be fascinating – to see how Tiger rebounds from two agonizing major setbacks, to see how Annika confronts her growing reputation as an underachiever in majors. The two best players in golf have now lost five consecutive majors (two for Tiger, three for Annika).

I know how they feel. I just shanked a word with my pen.

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