Tiger now faces his theory test

Andy Farrell says Woods could lose at Valhalla, but don't count on it
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The Independent Online

Clearly, considering why Tiger Woods might win a major championship is a redundant exercise. His victories at the US Open, by 15 strokes, and at The Open, by eight, provide fairly conclusive proof that Woods can win any tournament, anywhere, at any time.

Clearly, considering why Tiger Woods might win a major championship is a redundant exercise. His victories at the US Open, by 15 strokes, and at The Open, by eight, provide fairly conclusive proof that Woods can win any tournament, anywhere, at any time.

He has won each of the four majors once, will go on to win each of them on multiple occasions and is intent on earning a Grand Slam not just in career terms but, as in tennis, within the same season. With the USPGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, starting on Thursday, the more interesting question is why he might not win.

There is the "weight of history" theory. Woods already holds three major titles, since he won the USPGA at Medinah last year. Jack Nicklaus achieved the feat just once, in 1972, and only one player, Ben Hogan in 1953, has won three majors in the same year.

There have been times in recent months when Woods has played not so much against his fellow competitors as history. With equal success. Given that his record winning margin at Pebble Beach broke a record that had lasted for 138 years, the 24-year-old seems able to bear the weight of history without any discomfort.

If Woods is not about to crumble under that theory, what about the "getting up for it" theory? Woods undoubtedly wants to defend his title at Valhalla. He wants to win a fifth major, and further narrow that huge gap between him and the 18 of Nicklaus. Yet there are only so many really special performances anyone can produce in a short space of time. Woods targeted the two transatlantic Opens at the start of the season as his prime goals in the millennial year.

Until St Andrews, he had not been able to produce two such towering performances in the same year. Before he turned professional, Woods already displayed his amazing ability to peak when he most wants to in winning three successive US Juniors and then three successive US Amateurs. Since turning pro in 1996, Woods has said the hardest thing is trying to peak four times a year. He is getting closer, but has not proved he is there yet.

Then there is the strength in depth theory. This has taken something of a hammering recently with Woods removing any kind of competitive drama from the last nine holes of the last two majors. Yet only a couple of months ago, the game was meant to have been enjoying the greatest pool of top-quality players ever. Nicklaus has been keen to suggest that he faced more competition in Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson, all multiple major champions.

The problem with comparing Woods' competition with that of Nicklaus is that we know everything that the latter group have achieved. Who knows what Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, David Duval, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard and Sergio Garcia will achieve? Let alone the likes of young Aaron Baddeley, Adam Scott, Charles Howell, Luke Donald and Paul Casey.

Nicklaus added: "Tiger seems to be much in the same position as Arnold Palmer when he came along. When Arnold came on the scene, Snead, Hogan and Nelson were all past their best. He was in a class of his own, and so is Tiger at the moment. Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of very, very good players, but nobody who's up there with Tiger.

"Right now, he's the dominant player. Everyone has thrown up the white flag and surrendered, but there's a whole bunch who are going to learn how to play golf who will not surrender. There will be guys coming along, and they're going to compete against him. If that doesn't happen, the game will suffer." If anyone has the right to throw up the white flag it might be Els. Second in each of the majors this season, the South African had to play alongside Woods at Pebble and said he was "embarrassed" to trail in 15 strokes back.

Has he surrendered? Hardly. He won at Loch Lomond before blowing his strong start at St Andrews. Back he came again and won The International last week. "It would have been very tough even for him to beat me this week," Els said, without having to identify "him" by name. Els has managed to separate himself as the best of the rest and despite his genial, laid-back image, the South African has tremendous desire. It was no surprise that after Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997, it was Els who won the next major, the US Open at Congressional.

Finally, there is the "not quite so inspiring course" theory. Valhalla, designed by Nicklaus, staged the USPGA in 1996 but it felt like little more than a glorified Tour event when Mark Brooks beat Kenny Perry in a play-off. Woods' extraordinary shot-making ability will not have the opportunity to show itself as much as at Pebble or the Old Course.

At Valhalla, where the second hole was once used for growing marijuana, the playing field will be more level with greater emphasis on putting. Woods holed virtually everything from 10ft in the two Opens but can also have his off days, as when he three-putted twice in the opening round of the Buick Open in Michigan which ends today. He started yesterday's third round 10 shots behind the halfway leader Woody Austin, and said: "Obviously, I'd like to be in a better position but I can be successful without winning. I have been testing out shots, shaping them, and I feel real positive because I am almost exactly where I want to be.

"I spent two weeks playing links courses in the British Isles and there has got to be a period of adjustment. You have to beat down on the ball over there. Now I have grass under it again and I'm here because I needed to play between the British Open and the PGA."

Of course, Woods tends to avoid off days in majors, his last one being the first round of the Masters, when a double-bogey and a triple-bogey ruined his chances of winning all four majors. Somehow, Woods has been determined to make up for that day ever since.