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Rivals need to overcome awe of Tiger

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2002

He carries the hefty burden of history wherever he goes. So isn't it about time Tiger Woods was made to sweat?

He carries the hefty burden of history wherever he goes. So isn't it about time Tiger Woods was made to sweat?

Is it too much to ask? Maybe a glint of perspiration on his brow? A moment of doubt flashing in his eyes? Just once, could we see him glance over his shoulder with genuine fear that someone might be approaching?

He is on his way to becoming history's greatest golfer and this is the only shortcoming in his bag. To go along with the trophies, accolades and money, Woods has not produced a single rival worth fretting about.

The fault, of course, is not his. It may even be unfair to blame his competitors. Perhaps Woods is that good. Perhaps his game is that much better than the rest of the field.

Still, it leaves you longing for something more. For showdowns that have gone unrealized. For a Sunday afternoon charged with suspense.

After all, it is easier to appreciate something extraordinary when it does not always arrive with such punctuality.

Major League Baseball officials are whining because they say only a half-dozen teams have a legitimate chance of winning the World Series each season. The PGA Tour should be so lucky.

Really, would you like to bet on anyone else in this week's British Open? Phil Mickelson? Ernie Els? You don't have to be Martha Stewart to know where the smart money is this week. Or any other week.

At 26, Woods has distanced himself from his peers. And he is working on his elders. He is winning with an ease that is dizzying and disturbing.

Is there no one willing to grab Tiger by the tail?

"His only obstacle," Jack Nicklaus said in a conference call last week, "will be himself."

This has become golf's reality. When Woods is on his game, he wins. When he is not, someone else gets to win. There has been no in between. In recent years, there have been few cases of Woods getting outdueled by another.

When tied or leading going into the final day of a tournament, Woods has won 24 of the past 25. That includes 8-for-8 in the majors.

What this suggests is his rivals are not able, or willing, to challenge him when the opportunity arises. That when the lead belongs to Woods, so does the tournament.

If you are inclined to believe Woods has not reached the exalted status of Nicklaus, this is your reason. Nicklaus was dominant in an era of larger-than-life players. Woods is dominant in an era of underachievers.

At the time he was winning a record 18 titles in golf's four major tournaments, Nicklaus was a contemporary of Gary Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. Those four combined for 30 majors victories.

Nicklaus finished second 19 times in a major, including 11 times to Player, Watson, Palmer or Trevino.

Woods has never finished second in a major.

"I (played) with guys who had a history of knowing how to win tournaments, who were not afraid to win," Nicklaus said. "The guys today are terrific players, they're great players. There's nothing wrong with them. But they haven't had the luxury of having history behind them of having won significant tournaments where they say, "Hey, you know, I'm not afraid. I've won these tournaments before and I can win them again.'

"You have guys who have won one, maybe two, major championships. That's not enough to really turn around and say, "Hey, I can challenge anybody with the way I play.' Somebody is going to do that, or several guys are going to do that, which will be Tiger's competition in the future. But until that happens, he's going to have guys who are scared."

Do not misunderstand. Do not think Nicklaus is trying to elevate his own legacy by downplaying Woods' era. As Bobby Jones once passed the baton to Nicklaus as the game's greatest, Nicklaus has since passed it to Woods.

Nicklaus' point is more about competition, or the lack thereof. None of Woods' chief rivals has more than two wins in a major and Nicklaus said he believes they have psychological disadvantages.

Whereas Woods concentrates on the course and his game, Nicklaus said others have become obsessed with Woods. The result is they cater their game to beat him, instead of playing to their talents.

Nor have his rivals given any indication they have the nerve that has set Woods apart. No one has shown his ferocious will to win. No one has demonstrated his dedication to the game.

With the amount of money on the tour today, there are a lot of players who are happy to finish in the top 10, collect their millions and go home.

Maybe it will soon change. Maybe someone will stand up to Woods. Maybe it will happen this week at the British Open.

Until then, the tour's players will have much in common with the fans tuning in to watch as Woods trudges toward history.

Not as participants, but merely witnesses.

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