Originally created 03/25/01

Competition is closing in on Woods



Even as Tiger Woods is poised on the edge of unfathomable accomplishment, the demystification of the world's greatest golfer is in progress.

"Tiger's got to learn to lose," said Thomas Bjorn, the impudent Dane, after slaying Tiger in Dubai last month. "That's just the way golf is."

Well, isn't that a fine way to speak of the man who won nine times in 20 PGA Tour starts last season? The man who won three consecutive major championships - setting scoring records in each - heading into this week's Masters Tournament. The man attempting to sweep all four Grand Slam events.

Woods says he knows too well how to lose. He's "lost" 72 times in 97 starts as a PGA Tour pro.

"I've lost over 80 percent of my tournaments," he said. "That's a lot of losing."

This is what Woods' dominating play has rendered: an expectation that anything short of winning every week is some kind of failure. He finishes no worse than 13th in nine consecutive events, and everyone labels it a slump.

"It's annoying because of the fact that if you think that way, then you really don't understand the game of golf," Woods said.

Instead of wondering what's wrong with Tiger, people should consider what's right with everyone else.

They're better - and they're not afraid to take on the champ.

"I think the intimidation factor he had over other players isn't there anymore," Bjorn said. "Don't get me wrong; He's still the best player in the world, and he's going to win more tournaments than other players. But I know I can play with him and beat him."

This has become the prevailing sentiment, a notion first espoused by Hal Sutton before he beat Woods in 2000 at The Players Championship. Golf has a way of evening out.

"In this game I think it's very difficult for a player to intimidate another player, because you're not, you know, physically going out there and beating them," Woods said. "In this sport, maybe the intimidation is more mental than physical."

The mental and physical gaps have closed this season. Equipment, particularly the new solid-core golf balls, has lessened Woods' distance advantage. Scores are lower, and more players are in the hunt.

But the real change is in the confidence game: Guys don't yield the mental advantages to Woods.

"The intimidation factor is possibly not as it was," said Colin Montgomerie, who reversed his opinion from a year earlier. "I think the competition is catching up. It's amazing how that does happen with someone dominating the way Tiger did last year. We are all better, stronger than we were. It's amazing."

The demystification process began simply enough at Disney last October, when Woods was so busy trying to catch Steve Flesch that Duffy Waldorf sneaked by to win by a stroke.

The concept of Woods' vulnerability took shape two weeks later at The Tour Championship, when his streak was snapped by Phil Mickelson; In 19 consecutive PGA Tour victories, Woods had at least shared the lead entering the final round.

The downgrading of Tiger to mere mortal status intensified this season when his PGA Tour winless streak extended to six months before he broke the trend in his title defense at Bay Hill. Even then he had to fight his own sloppy play to stave off Mickelson.

"Today was very satisfying, with the fact that it was not a pretty round of golf," Woods said after Bay Hill. "From that perspective, it's a great feeling to win."

Despite the ridiculous assertions that Woods was suffering a "slump," he still has the aura; The other players just aren't as blinded by it. Mickelson challenges - and often beats - Woods every time they compete. Other players have learned a lesson.

Davis Love III, who had suffered repeated defeats at the hands of Woods, edged him at the unofficial Williams World Challenge in the offseason, then ended a two-year winless streak by winning at Pebble Beach, where Woods was defending champion.

Now Woods needs to end another so-called "slump" - three years without a victory at the Masters since his record-shattering triumph in 1997. With the chance to become the first player to reign as champion of all four Grand Slam events simultaneously, Woods has been focusing on this tournament all season.

"Everything Tiger is doing is geared toward the Masters," Butch Harmon, Woods' swing instructor, has said repeatedly over the past couple of months. "He's talked about it all year. It's on his mind. It's on everybody's mind."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.