Tiger Woods this, Tiger Woods that. Even absent, he dominates conversation. In the pre-tournament days at the Canon Greater Hartford Open, it seemed only people sans larynx were not discussing the specter of one particular 26-year-old golfer. Post-U.S. Open buzz ran rampant. Grand Slam talk filled the air.
“After he won other tournaments, players questioned were like, ‘Do we have to talk about (Woods) again?’ ” said Billy Andrade, four-time PGA Tour champion. “But now all the players want to talk about him.”
Winning seven of the last 11 major championships has done that. Woods again has made his peers shake their heads. He wins the Masters and Open for a Half Slam, and he moves deeper into their heads.
“You’ve got to start wondering until you see him bleed,” six-time winner John Huston said. “He might have lights and computer chips in there.”
It was in that Tiger Talk environment, on the Tuesday and Wednesday after his three-stroke Open victory, that Golfweek asked 27 Tour players: Do you think Woods will win the Grand Slam this year?
This is a proud, competitive group. These people are nothing without confidence. Yet 10 players said yes. Count Notah Begay III, Peter Jacobsen, David Frost, D.A Weibring, Ted Tryba, Willie Wood, Jay Williamson, Paul Goydos, Lee Porter and Huston among the believers. And most of the 17 “no” voters contemplated the inquiry for several seconds and talked of Woods in terms of awe.
“Tiger’s the most underrated player on Tour,” said one such voter, fourth-year Tour player Joe Ogilvie. “The fact there’s still a question whether he’s the best player ever makes him underrated. There’s no one in his league when he wants to win.”
“Who’s going to beat him?” asked Tommy Armour III, who nevertheless did not answer in the affirmative.
“After the U.S. Open, how can you say he’s not going to (win the Slam)?” Ryder Cup player Scott Verplank said.
Players in the British Open and PGA Championship fields were more likely to say nay because of personal pride. The fact that 10 votes supported Woods is an indication of how much he is in players’ psyches.
“It’s unbelievable so many said yes,” Tour journeyman Williamson said. “But how do you say no?”
Tough guy Frank Lickliter said no because “there’s 144 of us after his (butt), that’s why.” But that hasn’t stopped Woods this year or in 2000-01, when he won four consecutive majors through the ’01 Masters.
Most players who voted no cited myriad variables go into winning the British and PGA under extreme pressure. Those include other players getting hot; the possibility of a rare bad day for Woods; a Muirfield course that doesn’t favor power; and the luck of Thursday-Friday tee times.
The latter might be Woods’ major obstacle. A player who gets on the wrong side of the morning-afternoon draw the first two days of the British can find himself with no chance. The weather can change quickly, and if a player avoids the inclement weather, he can have an advantage of several strokes on a Scottish links. In the 1990 Open at St. Andrews, Davis Love III played every hole into the wind and, thanks to a tide switch, Payne Stewart played every hole downwind. Love struggled and Stewart contended.
The par-71, 6,963-yard Muirfield features several layup holes because of cross-bunkers and doglegs. Woods likely will tee off often with a 2-iron. The layout and typically firm, fast conditions mean more players will have a chance than at Augusta National and Bethpage Black.
That said, the past six champions at Muirfield have been Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Each is a Hall of Famer. It doesn’t take an SAT whiz to fill in the next name.
In pursuit of the unprecedented calendar-year Slam, Woods probably will be more motivated at Muirfield than ever before. It’s the first time anyone has won the first two legs since Nicklaus three decades ago. Then there’s his psychological advantage. He seems to be the only player who hits all the shots when he has to, while others make mistakes.
“Players play differently when he’s in the field,” Ogilvie said. “They play Tiger instead of the golf course. He’s the only guy playing the golf course.”
Ah, yes, mind games. Sony Open winner Jerry Kelly, a “no” voter on the Slam inquiry, knows about those.
“If I vote yes, maybe he’ll expect it and won’t play as well,” Kelly cracked. “I’m trying to get inside his head.”