Tiger trauma is taking heavy toll

Biggest names in the game feel intimidated by world's No 1
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The Independent Online

The cry from the chorus line makes a plaintive sound. "What am I supposed to say?" Jeff Sluman, the 1988 USPGA champion, asked. "He keeps beating me, so I am supposed to say he's so good and I really stink?"

The "he" in question is, obviously, Tiger Woods. And if you are a fellow professional golfer, and therefore have expert knowledge of why the world No 1 is so good, what do you say? "He is very, very good," said Colin Montgomerie, "and if you don't say that, you are accused of not showing the guy the right respect. But if you do say it, you're being defeatist."

Curtis Strange, the former double US Open champion, meets the dilemma full on. As a fierce competitor, the 2001 US Ryder Cup captain says: "People can think they can't beat Tiger, but you can't say it." Then again, as a commentator for ABC television in the States, Strange has a duty to his audience. "You hate to keep blowing his horn, but every time you turn round, he's doing something no one else can."

When Woods turned professional in 1998, it was Strange who conducted the TV interview with the tour newcomer in which he said it was his intention to win every week. Strange just laughed. "You'll learn," he replied. Everyone else is just learning that Woods meant it. Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open champion, recalls: "When Tiger said, 'I expect to win every week' everybody went, 'Yeah, sure, right.'

"He's made you realise he means it. So how does that affect me? It changes my mindset. If I don't expect to win every time, how can I expect to compete? I need to learn what he's learned. I'd better trust in my talent, I'd better believe in myself under the gun, and I'd better expect to win."

Hal Sutton, who defeated Woods to win the Players Championship, can accuse the media of making Tiger into a "god", but he should listen to Jack Nicklaus. "Tiger is better than the other players by a greater margin than I was," said the winner of 18 majors. "He can get on a roll and win three or four of these things in a row and all of a sudden that majors record isn't that far away."

Mark O'Meara, who took the rookie Woods under his wing and then won two majors in 1998, does not practice with him any more. "He's too good for me," O'Meara admitted. "It's pretty amazing, with all the expectations placed on him, that he's just become so much better." And Ernie Els said: "If Tiger carries on like this, he is going to be bigger than Elvis by the time he's 40."

There are dissenting voices. "He is only playing as well as I've seen Greg Norman and Nick Price play," said the Australian Steve Elkington. "They didn't sustain it. So we'll see."

Price, the game's dominant player between 1992 and '94, also reserves judgement. "Tiger is not going to have it all his own way as much as people think," said the Zimbabwean. "It will be difficult to keep up the pace for a whole year. You can't say he struggles on any course, but there are certain ones he has more of an advantage on. When he is ready to play, isfiring on all cylinders and on the right type of course that suits him, like Augusta, he is very, very difficult to beat."

Woods, aiming for a second Green Jacket and a third major title this week at Augusta, has won three times in seven starts this season and was runner-up on three other occasions. Going back to last season, he had a streak of six consecutive US Tour victories, the best sequence for over 50 years. In the last year he has won 13 times and has been outside the top 10 fewer times than most people miss the cut. His world ranking points average and lead over the second-placed David Duval are both records that seem to extend every week.

It has almost got to the point where victories are designated AT (Against Tiger) or WW (Without Woods). "If I happen to win, I like to think I beat the best," said Duval. "And he's No 1. He motivates me to do better."

Call it coincidence, but Duval has not won for a year. He has never won a major, like Montgomerie, the world No 3, who is also still seeking his first win on the US Tour. Love, the world No 4, has not won for two years and has lost all five of his head-to-head battles with Woods.

The last occasion was at the Bay Hill Invitational last month. "You start thinking, 'Can I beat him?' and he thrives on that," Love said. "Coming down the stretch he is only going to play good, but the other guy is not going to play as well as he can because he's trying to catch up. You start trying to hit miracle shots and you don't pull them off. You get three, four, five strokes behind Tiger and you're not going to win, plain and simple."

Love narrowed the gap to two with successive birdies and hit just about his best drive at the 12th. Love is no slouch off the tee, but Woods, sensing a critical moment, hit his drive 40 yards past. Montgomerie said, much to Sutton's dismay, that everyone was playing for second place after the first round. "The American tour is watching for one name," Monty said.

"We have never had someone as dominant as Tiger, not in my career anyway. Palmer and Nicklaus were dominant in their own way, as were Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, but not to the same extent as Tiger. This is all very new, this complete dominance."

Sutton responded: "Those people praising Tiger all the time are getting into a defeatist attitude. If you are saying his game is superior to everyone else's, then it doesn't matter how good yours is. A lot of people don't think they can beat Tiger down the stretch. Some of it is self-inflicted." Sutton managed to avoid beating himself to win the Players from Woods at Sawgrass.

"Tiger is not bigger than the game," Sutton said in his triumph. "I would caution all the other players that Tiger is human. He is a fantastic player, the greatest we have, and he is hard enough to beat without making it into a god-like scenario. I was in bed and I realised I wasn't praying to Tiger. He is not a god. He is a good human being who lives up to his ranking of No1 every day. I am proud to beat him. It's OK to praise him now I don't have to hit another shot against him."