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Under pressure

Grand Slam history weighs on Woods at British Open.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002


Winning any professional golf tournament is considered a feat. Winning four, for some, might make a career. Capturing a quartet in the same season is the stuff of accolades and awards.

What does that make winning a predetermined four tournaments, the biggest four in the world, one after the other, in the same year?

So far, impossible.

That's the Grand Slam, victories in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

This week, when the 131st British Open is played at Muirfield in Scotland, Tiger Woods, 26, becomes just the third player to go into the tournament with the hope of winning all four major championships in the same year.

He won the Masters in April by three shots over Retief Goosen, then took last month's U.S. Open by three over Phil Mickelson. It was his eighth professional major triumph and his seventh in the past 11.

"Every time he wins one, it gets exponentially harder," two-time British Open champion Greg Norman said. "You win one, now you try for two. Now the pressure has quadrupled. You win the third and what does it do? It quadruples on top of quadruples.

"It's very hard to explain what it would be like. You know the players will be gunning for you that much more. They'll want to stop him. They won't step back and let him win the Grand Slam. It'll be tough on him. It's going to be tough on him from the competitive side, too, because the pressure will be enormous."

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus know the feeling.

Palmer, in 1960, embraced the idea of winning the Grand Slam. By most accounts, he invented the modern concept, declaring that victories in those four tournaments would constitute a Grand Slam.

He went to St. Andrews after victories at the Masters and U.S. Open, shot a final-round 68, and came up a shot short of Kel Nagle. He never had another chance.

"I don't think there's anyone who plays the type of golf we're talking about who doesn't feel the pressure," said Palmer, 72. "Whether it was (Ben) Hogan or (Byron) Nelson, (Sam) Snead or anybody. Tiger is no different. He just handles it better. That's what we're looking at right now.

"For the most part, he's been able to shed that pressure and it's the reason he's as good as he is."

Nicklaus won the Masters and U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1972, then went to Muirfield, his favorite venue in the British Open rotation. He won his first British Open there in 1966. And if he were successful there, the PGA Championship was going to be played at another favorite venue, Oakland Hills.

But Nicklaus, who was plagued by a bad neck for the first two rounds, also came up a shot short, losing to Lee Trevino despite shooting a final-round 66.

"I think there's always pressure if you've won the first one," Nicklaus, 62, said of the Grand Slam quest. "If you win the Masters, there's pressure going into the U.S. Open. But that's what you thrive on, that's what you're trying to do, that's what you're trying to get to. And I would call it more excited than pressure.

"You have to figure out how to control your excitement about the opportunity that you have in front of you. That was the problem I had."

Perhaps no one felt the pressure as much as Bobby Jones, the amateur from Georgia who later founded Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters.

Jones won a different Grand Slam in 1930, victories at the U.S. Open and Amateur, along with the British Open and Amateur. It was a different game then, when an amateur could reign supreme over a professional golfer. And the amateur titles were contested at match play.

In 1926, when Jones won the U.S. Open and British Open, he first believed it was possible to win the biggest amateur events along with them.

"Jones always used to say championships are lost on milk and honey and won on toast and tea," said Sidney L. Matthew, who has written several books about Jones. "The only thing he could keep down during a championship was toast and tea. The pressure was so severe on Jones that he couldn't keep anything down. He would throw up before he would go out to play."

Much like Woods today, Jones was held to a different standard. When he played, he was expected to win. Jones won 13 of the 31 major championships he entered (including amateurs).

"Anybody who beat Jones, man, that would make their reputation forever," Matthew said. "He used to say that pressure is very odd, that it's as though somebody is always chasing you. You don't know who it is. You don't know how fast they're coming up on you. But it's this eerie feeling of somebody who is always pursuing you. You never know whether he's going to be able to overtake you."

That eventually took its toll. Jones was just 28 when he retired from competitive golf after winning the Grand Slam in 1930.

"He didn't miss the anxiety that a downhill 3-foot putt produced," Matthew said. "He was tired of the pressure."

Helping Woods cope will be the fact that he knows he's done this before -- in a different way. When Woods captured the 2001 Masters, it was his fourth consecutive major victory, something never before accomplished in the professional majors. Referred to as the Tiger Slam, Woods seems to take exception to those who believe a "calendar" Slam is somehow better.

"When I was at home, I had all four trophies on my mantle," Woods said after the U.S. Open. "No other person can say that."

And that, said Nicklaus, might be more impressive than what he is trying to accomplish now.

"If he did it, basically it would be two of them," Nicklaus said. "That's not only unbelievable, that's super unbelievable."

The British Open has not been at Muirfield since 1992, when Nick Faldo won there for the second time, edging John Cook by a shot. Even at age 45, Faldo sees himself having a chance, because of the subtleties of the course, the different shots required.

"But the great thing about Tiger is he's a bit like the tennis players; you've got to learn four different surfaces," Faldo said. "Indoor and clay are obviously massively different. To go from (the U.S. Open) to Muirfield ... he relishes that challenge. That's what a player of that caliber needs. He'll come up with a game plan."

"Winning majors, the Grand Slam, you have to be very, very special," Palmer said. "And Tiger is very capable. There would be no point in discussing this point about winning them all if we didn't think it possible."

If he wins the Claret Jug, it'll be on to Hazeltine National outside of Minneapolis next month. And then?

"Sheer bedlam," Palmer said.

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