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Players look to stop Woods' domination

But it won't be easy as Tiger Woods goes for his fifth straight major championship.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 13, 2001


TULSA, Okla. -- The champion is back, ready to defend a title so few seem capable of taking away. A year has passed, the venue has changed, but so much remains the same.

Tiger Woods is the U.S. Open champion; the list of challengers is uninspiring.

If Woods' reign is to conclude at the 101st U.S. Open, who will end it?

The usual suspects emerge -- Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Ernie Els, etc. -- all with questions.

A year ago at Pebble Beach, Woods shattered U.S. Open and major championship scoring records, winning by 15 shots on an historic course hard by the Pacific Ocean.

The heat and humidity of the heartland at Southern Hills Country Club offer only a different setting when the tournament begins Thursday. Woods is the player to beat, and there is no clear-cut choice to knock him off.

"As a player, you come to the realization that you have to play very well, to be mistake-free, and expect to be battling with him come Sunday," said Duval, who has been in contention in his past two major championships.

Woods enters the tournament having won four straight majors and five of his past six starts, including a seven-shot victory two weeks ago at the Memorial.

That was his 20th win his past 40 events on the PGA Tour and the 28th victory in 100 PGA Tour events as a pro.

He has won five of the past six majors, with Vijay Singh slipping in to win the 2000 Masters. Singh also won the 1998 PGA Championship, making him one of two players (Mark O'Meara is the other) to capture two majors in the Woods era that began with his 1997 Masters victory.

Although he has five top-three finishes this year, Singh has been unable to win. He finished one shot behind Woods at the Players Championship, having made a triple bogey down the stretch.

Mickelson and Duval challenged Woods at the Masters, but neither has won a major. Mickelson has more PGA Tour victories than any player other than Woods over the past two seasons (five), but he has blown four good chances to win this year, including the Masters, where he missed four short putts during the final round and lost by three.

Els finished runner-up in three majors last year but has just one PGA Tour victory since the start of 2000. Justin Leonard has shown a recent spark but has just two victories since his 1997 British Open triumph. Tom Lehman won the 1996 Tour Championship at Southern Hills but has one tour victory since. Sergio Garcia won the Colonial last month on a similar layout to Southern Hills, but it was his first PGA Tour win. Lee Janzen? He has no victories since winning his second U.S. Open three years ago.

"If something doesn't go (Woods') way, then you have a chance," Garcia said.

Asked to assess his U.S. Open chance last week while in Europe, Colin Montgomerie replied, "Why? Is Tiger injured?"

And the more they lose while Woods keeps winning, the tougher the task becomes.

"When I won my majors, it was against guys who had won majors themselves," said Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 professional majors. "They knew how to win majors, which made it harder (for me) to win."

Nicklaus won and lost majors against players including Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Gary Player.

"Jack was clearly the best player, but he was just a little better than the next guys," said former tour player Roger Maltbie, now an NBC analyst. "Arnold Palmer could still play. Lee Trevino could beat him. Tom Watson. Johnny Miller gave him trouble. If Jack didn't play his best, they'd beat him.

"Now, I mean no disrespect to the next level of player (from Woods), but the differences between their ability and Tiger's ability are rather profound. If Tiger plays nearly as well as he can, he's going to win. If Tiger plays his best, case closed."

Els confirmed the theory after last year's U.S. Open. He said his best effort might have pulled him within only seven or eight shots of Woods. Els, 31, was hailed as the game's next great player when he won the 1994 U.S. Open. He also won the '97 Open and has five top 10s in eight Open appearances.

But Els never narrowed the gap on Woods last year after losing in a playoff at the season-opening Mercedes Championship. He did have three runner-up finishes in majors, finishing ahead of Woods at the Masters, but he was well in Woods' rearview mirror at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.

"You've got to hand it to him," Els said. "He's won the last four majors. It's no wonder you guys (media) ask these questions, because it's just the way it is. I definitely can't help that the guy is that good. That's just a fact. Saying that, I've got to believe that I've got a good chance of playing well and winning this week.

"We're competing against a guy who is dominating a sport unlike anybody else."

That is a mental hurdle that needs to be negotiated, no matter the circumstances.

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