Originally created 06/26/02

Tiger, those chasing him, deserve a little more credit



There was no sense of surrender in his voice, only awe and admiration when Jack Nicklaus offered his first stark appraisal of Tiger Woods.

It was six years ago at the Masters, when Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played a practice round with the 20-year-old prodigy. Nicklaus said he had never seen a game so fundamentally sound at such a young age, and predicted that Woods might win more green jackets than he and Palmer combined (10).

That remains a distinct possibility.

Only now, Nicklaus wonders if it will happen by default.

Whatever admiration Nicklaus has for Woods' game now is tempered by disgust he directs at the players whom Woods routinely beats.

Where was the challenge at the Masters?

Five of the top seven players in the world were stacked behind him going into the final round, yet Woods needed only a 1-under 71 to win by three shots.

"Good gracious, he didn't do anything the last nine holes," Nicklaus said. "All he did was stay out of harm's way and let everyone else destroy themselves."

Where was the competition at the U.S. Open?

Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson were within two shots of the lead with 15 holes to play at Bethpage Black. Woods played even par the rest of the way and shot a 2-over 72. And he still won by three shots.

What's wrong with these guys?

"Tiger has them all buffaloed," Nicklaus said last week during an exhibition with four guys who were anything but that during his reign - Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

"I never played in a tournament with these four guys and thought, 'I don't have a chance.' And the same is true for all of them," Nicklaus said. "That's the difference. If you don't believe you can win, you won't win. We believed."

Oh, that explains it.

Never mind that along with belief and perhaps a little pixie dust, Mickelson also needed to carve out a 66 on the longest and arguably most difficult U.S. Open course ever.

Since the U.S. Open went to 18-hole final rounds in 1965, only one player from the final two groups on Sunday had ever posted a score that low - Nicklaus in 1967 at Baltusrol, when he had a 65 to overcome amateur Marty Fleckman.

Marty Fleckman is no Tiger Woods.

Woods has never lost when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major.

"For someone to say, 'I can't believe one of those guys didn't shoot 5-under-par, they must have choked' ... that's just not a knowledgeable statement," Mickelson said.

"I spotted him five shots going into Sunday. That was a very hard golf course that Tiger didn't dominate that day, either. You have to make five birdies on tough holes, and par all the other tough holes. For someone to suggest that should have happened, that's naive."

That's more like frustration.

Nicklaus has said on more than one occasion that he would like to be around when Woods breaks his record of 18 professional majors.

What he really wants is for someone to make Woods work for it.

Woods has won his eight majors by a combined 44 strokes (not including playoffs).

Nicklaus won his 18 majors by that same margin.

"Could somebody come along and beat Tiger?" Nicklaus said. "Sure. But do they want to work as hard as Tiger? Do they want to prepare themselves as much as Tiger?"

What Nicklaus wants - what they all want - is a crack at Woods in their prime. During the exhibition last week in Kansas City, Watson asked Palmer if he wished he were 30 years younger so he could take on Tiger.

"You bet your (butt) I do," Palmer replied.

Where that would lead is anyone's guess.

Sure, Palmer still might have shot a 65 in the final round of the U.S. Open, just like he did in 1960 at Cherry Hills. But what would have happened if Woods - not Mike Souchak - was the guy Palmer was chasing? Souchak closed with a 75 that day.

Nicklaus was a runner-up four times each in majors to Watson and Trevino. He already had won seven majors by the time Trevino first beat him at the '68 U.S. Open. He had won 14 majors by the time Watson first rang up Nicklaus in the '77 Masters.

What if Nicklaus still had been trying to win his first major?

"If he (Woods) played against them, he probably would have kicked them, too," Ernie Els said. "For them to criticize us because one guy is dominating golf is unfair. Nobody is coming out and really challenging him, but it's not for a lack of trying.

"To keep criticizing us, they're just wasting their breath."

Nicklaus was no pushover, either.

He was 11-2 in the majors when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead. The first he failed to hold was in the 1971 Masters, when he was tied with Charles Coody going into the final round and shot 72, while Coody had a 70.

That was his 37th major as a professional. Woods has played only 22.

Give it time.

And in the meantime, give Woods - and the guys chasing him - a little more credit.