Sunday, January 27, 2008

The 19th Hole: Tiger the Prophet

On his website early in the new year and at a press conference this week, Tiger Woods made what seemed like a very strange proclamation. He said and then reiterated that winning the single season Grand Slam in 2008 was within reason. Without context to the comment, it seems that Tiger may have gotten an ego that was too big for even the greatest golfer wielding a club today. Even with 61 career PGA Tour wins before the season, Woods was still 6 majors shy of owning golf’s most hallowed record of winning the most major championships in a career.

Before a fan were to pronounce Woods just like any other athlete that is too full of their self, they would have to consider how often Woods makes public comments like these. Never. He never gives his competition the bulletin board material that the New England Patriots seems to keep getting every week. It is rare that he makes a stink, calls out another player or official, or diverges from the winning mantra.

The point is that when Tiger says something in a press conference that he is speaking of things about which he feels very certain. For him to proclaim in public that the Grand Slam is within reason is for him to put everyone on notice that he, for potentially the first time in his career, has a real belief that he can win the Grand Slam.

Could you argue with the guy after his performance this week at the Buick Invitational? It would be hard to do so. Woods obliterated the field at Torrey Pines on his way to his 62nd PGA Tour win and fourth consecutive title at the site of this year’s US Open. His iron play was out of sight. The putting technique was flawless. Bogies were incredibly rare. It was total domination and may very well be just the first win in a march to history in 2008.

The mention that Torrey Pines is the host site of the US Open leads to a quick discussion of the other major championship sites this year. Everyone knows Tiger’s amazing record at Augusta National. His consistency there over the years has only been matched by Jack Nicklaus’ win count and Fred Couples’ obscene cuts made streak – currently at 23. The Open Championship is at Royal Birkdale. Last held there in 1998, Tiger finished strong there despite being in the middle of a swing change. Oakland Hills hosts the PGA Championship. Tiger may have struggled there at the Ryder Cup in 2004, but would you bet against him if he won the first three of the season? Me neither.

Still, Woods did not appear completely bulletproof in his win at Torrey Pines. The way he won this week may not be applicable in June when the USGA has control over the South Course. The rough will be deeper and thicker. The fairways will be smaller. The greens will be faster. The course will be up to 400 yards longer. In short, this Torrey Pines that Woods crushed will be nowhere to be found for the US Open.

That is where a chink in the Woods armor becomes apparent. Woods hit approximately half of the fairways in his win this week. Missing the more generous fairways at the shorter PGA Tour setup of Torrey Pines does not bode well for the US Open. Then again, the USGA fairways are in general tougher to hit. The more difficult the conditions, the more likely it is that the rest of the field will come back to Woods’ accuracy rate. If Woods can achieve a fairways hit rate of slightly better than half and keep the errant tee shots to a minimum, then Woods is sure to be in the thick of it on Sunday at the Open.

Let’s face facts here. The US Open is the most difficult golf tournament to win. The setup is brutal and the pressure is immense. Even having the advantage of scorching this golf course on an annual basis may not be much of an advantage for Woods. Still, with the way Woods has been playing lately, it would be foolish to think that anyone other than Woods would triumph at the US Open – or any other tournament, frankly.

Often times, when athletes make guarantees or predictions, they wind up looking silly. Woods almost impishly acknowledged that he could win the Grand Slam in 2008. Were it any other athlete, even the modesty with which he discussed the subject would draw a serious eye roll. When Tiger Woods speaks, though, there is almost a certainty to it that cannot be ignored. That is why I have come to believe that the Grand Slam is more than within reason. It is within likelihood.

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