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Golf

There's no Watson to Tiger's Nicklaus

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One man. One tournament. What's so hard about that?

A little tenacity. A little toughness. Isn't someone up to the challenge?

Another Masters. Same old monster. Is everyone going to run scared again?

Is this too much to ask? These are the best golfers in the world. Isn't it time someone stood up to the biggest bully in the game? These are competitors, right? Isn't it time someone tamed the Tiger?

This is golf; this isn't boxing. One man isn't supposed to stand so far above the field. Someday, some tournament, doesn't it figure that someone would play a course better than Tiger Woods plays it?

Every year, every major, it seems his competitors give in a little more. They play, one eye on their score and one on his. If it happens that Woods is throwing up pretty good numbers, you can see the fire die in their eyes.

So it is with this year's Masters. Woods is trying to win his third straight, which no one has done. It's a staggering notion, and despite that, can you really see anyone else winning? It's easier to see him challenging history than someone else challenging him.

What should the rest of the field do, then? Maybe this:

Maybe they should take some advice from the masters of the Masters.

Arnold Palmer is 73, and the lines in his face are as deep as a sand bunker. His best golf left him long ago. Still, the rest of the competitors might do well to listen to something his father, Deacon, used to tell him:

" 'Get tough, boy,' " ' Palmer said.

It comes to that, really. No one questions the ability of Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia. But great athletes have a mind that matches the ability, a grit that lets them rise to the size of the moment.

"There was certainly a tough attitude (when he dominated the tour), and more playing to win, vs. today," Palmer said Wednesday. "You know, there's a thing about the way guys play today that is probably more like you go to the office and you do your job. And you do it in a work-ethic style. If you do that and if you win, you win. And if you lose, it's part of your job.

"I'm not sure there wasn't a little more emotion attached to it back in the earlier days of the tour. The emotion got to a high and guys came on strong. I think Tiger develops an emotion that brings out the adrenalin and makes him play much better at times. I'm not sure I see that (with others)."

In other words, losing used to sting a little more than it does now. Finish second, and it was going to eat at you for a while.

Ask Palmer. He stills seems annoyed that, in 1961, he was in shape to win the Masters before spotting a friend in the gallery, walking over to him and listening to praise. He promptly double-bogeyed and lost the Masters to Gary Player. Had that not happened, Palmer might have won three in a row (he won in '60 and '62).

"If you do that, you're pretty stupid, and that's what I did," Palmer said.

Jack Nicklaus, 63, can relate. He'll still tell you about how devastated he was to lose a British Open in '72 when Lee Trevino chipped in from the back of the green, or the U.S. Open in '82 when Tom Watson chipped in on No. 17 to propel him to victory.

"I was flattened," Nicklaus said. "That was a hard, hard loss for me. Does that mean I went back and kicked the lockers and hit my wife and did all kinds of things. No, of course I didn't. But I didn't like to lose, which is why I won a lot."

Now ask yourself this: When is the last time anyone was ticked when they lost to Woods?

These days, there is a dull acceptance of Woods' superiority. In Palmer's day, and in Nicklaus', there were more golfers determined to make them prove their greatness, over and again. Watson. Trevino. Player. Tom Weiskopf. Seve Ballesteros. If Nicklaus slipped just a little, or Palmer before him, then those guys would grab the trophy right out of their case.

"Any time you have guys like that, it's a tough blow when you lose, because they were used to winning," Nicklaus said. "The guys today, they don't win very often. Tiger's the only one who, when he walks into a tournament, knows he should probably win. Back in those days, there were probably a half-dozen of us who thought if they walked in and played well they would win, in spite of if I was there or anybody else was there.

"I suppose that losing to some of the guys is not as devastating as it was to me then."

Nicklaus won 18 majors. But he finished second 19 times, too. Palmer won seven and finished second nine times.

Tiger? He has won eight. He has only one second. In other words, if he's in the hunt, if he hasn't taken himself out of contention, he usually wins.

Nothing's wrong with that. Still, it would be nice to see someone stand up to Woods, to see someone stare eye to eye and match him shot for shot.

Who?

Els? Maybe. He seems about halfway between Woods and the rest of the field, and he says he's recovered from his wrist injury. Mickelson? Come on. I once vowed to pick Mickelson every year until he won, figuring that someday, with his talent, I had to be right. Well, silly me. Mickelson's best shot is to finish early on Sunday and then have all the leaders blow up after he's done.

Garcia? Nope. He talks a little too much about a new swing to expect a different finish. Vijay Singh? Maybe, but the guy seems to hate creeks, doesn't he? Retief Goosen? Maybe. He was close last year.

Ah, but Woods has the temperament, the most fierce disposition, in the field. He's tougher than the other golfers, tougher than the surrounding controversy, tougher than the difficult course and tougher than soggy weather.

Can anyone beat him?

Yes.

Him.

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