The incredible chases the impossible

The man who has everything wants to keep hold of all the major trophies. And no one is saying Woods won't. Next stop Tulsa on Tiger's endless magical history tour
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The Independent Online

The last time a major championship was played at Southern Hills, the best player in the world won in a landslide. Whether it be elections or golf's majors, there are only repeats these days. Nick Price arrived at the US PGA in 1994 having won the Open at Turnberry a few weeks earlier. He was in the form of his life, was, briefly, dominating the game, and won by six strokes.

Tiger Woods has the same idea, and then some. He has won five of his last six tournaments and five of the last six majors, including a history defying fourth successive victory at the Masters in April. The next stop on Tiger's Grand Tour is the US Open, which starts on Thursday in Tulsa, a small city in the state of Oklahoma best known for a reference in the lyrics of a pop song.

If Woods's competitors can get, metaphorically speaking, within 24 hours of the world No. 1 it will be an improvement on last year's US Open. Then it became clear Woods was playing in one millennium and the rest in another. For Woods, records are meant to be shattered. His 15-stroke winning margin was the greatest in 140 years of major championships.

While the drama was intense at Augusta as Woods became the first player ever to hold all four of the major trophies at one time, Tiger turned last year's US Open at Pebble Beach into more of a parade than a sporting contest with a display of brilliance in shot-making, recovery play and putting that even he may never be able to match. He finished at 12 under par, naturally a new record for the championship, while the best of the rest were three over.

What he took away from Pebble Beach, along with the trophy, was an impenetrable confidence. If, as the saying goes, golf is a game of inches, with the most important being those inches between the ears, Tiger's greatest asset, and this in a 25-year-old, must be his self-possession. The stage was set so perfectly for his victory at Augusta that it appeared preordained.

The question is not so much why will Woods win in Tulsa, as why not? For a sport where favourites did not exist until Tiger, that is an intriguing shift of emphasis. "Why, is Tiger injured?" replied Colin Montgomerie when asked about his US Open chances. Ironically, it is Monty who has the injury, a back problem possibly brought about by his recent conversion to practising.

Whether Montgomerie makes the flight to Tulsa or not, his form of late has not been great, and nor has that of Lee Westwood, who is struggling to take the changes he has made in posture and alignment from the range on to the course. Montgomerie was the joint first-round leader with Price in the 1994 US PGA at Southern Hills, while Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ian Woosnam all finished in the top 10.

Europe's two US-based players, Jesper Parnevik and Sergio Garcia, apparently running into form just at the right time and up to seventh in the world, may be the best bets this time. But if Europe is struggling to provide a challenger to Woods, so is the rest of the world. Fiji has as good a chance as any with Vijay Singh the last player other than Woods to win a major.

But Singh has managed to hit a destructive shot too many when he has got into contention in America this year, while Phil Mickelson has a conversion rate of one out of seven when in with a chance in the final round this season. After he and David Duval lost out to Woods at Augusta, Mickelson said he needed to cut out the mistakes, but has been defeated three times down the stretch since.

While he once had a problem decelerating on putts, as during his tussle with the late Payne Stewart at the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst, lately Mickelson has been missing too many short putts by hitting them through the break. "At least I am getting myself into contention more," said the left-hander. "But I seem to be taking it easy on Sundays as opposed to taking advantage of my opportunities as I used to when I only had three or four chances a year."

The same may apply to Ernie Els, who as a double past US Open champion can never be discounted. Mickelson was third at the 1994 US PGA, while Tom Lehman won the US Tour Championship at Southern Hills in 1996. It was during that event that Woods had his worst round as a professional, a 78 after staying up all night in hospital with his father who had undergone heart surgery.

Southern Hills, built by Perry Maxwell in 1936, measures only 6,973 yards but will have a par-five of 642 yards, the longest par-five in the championship's history. The par-fours tend to be either very long, or testingly short and the set-up, with the usual severe rough, has, as always, been described as the toughest ever by the US Golf Association.

Tigerproofed they might think it is, but Woods has learnt that accuracy over power is often better in majors. While other will be forced into hitting drivers, Woods can hit his two-iron off the tee and not lose any distance. Having worked on a whole host of specific shots in the run-up to Augusta, Tiger has concentrated on his long-iron play recently and his victory at the Memorial last Sunday was set up by a two-iron over water to six feet for eagle at the fifth hole.

"I'm amazed by some of the shots I was able to pull off," Woods said at Muirfield Village. "I hit the ball flush and high and the shape I wanted. If I wanted to hit a two-iron 250 yards in the air, I was able to do it. I did it consistently. That to me is kind of cool." Woods was not the only one impressed. Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host, added: "Not too much amazes me any more, but he does." Prepare for more amazement.