Tiger seeks Grand Slam glory on unfamiliar course

by Rob Kim | 7/16/02 5:00am

This weekend, all eyes will be on the British Open at Muirfield, Scotland as Tiger Woods attempts to do something that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus never did: win the first three major golf tournaments in one year and take one step closer to that seemingly unattainable Grand Slam of golf.

With his rain-soaked victory at Bethpage Black last month and 8th major championship of his career, Tiger spent another major weekend nonchalantly playing his usual round of golf while his competitors scrambled to catch up and ultimately failed.

Watching the last round of a major led by Tiger through three is about as entertaining as Sergio Garcia's pre-shot routine; most viewers spent more time looking for glimpses of Tiger's Swedish bikini-model girlfriend and Sergio's Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis, rather than the actual golf itself.

To understand this rare situation, one must put the Grand Slam in perspective. The modern Grand Slam, the four tournaments comprised of the Masters, the United States and British Opens and the PGA Championship, has never been completed.

The closest anyone has ever been before this year was Arnold Palmer, who coined the modern Grand Slam in 1960, and Jack Nicklaus in 1972. Both won the first two majors of the year; both failed at the British Open.

Purists will argue that Ben Hogan's 1953 effort should also be considered, when the legendary golfer won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, but was prevented from playing in the PGA Championship because it fell on the same weekend as the British Open. There was, however, no talk of a Grand Slam from Hogan or anyone else, hence none of that extra baggage.

Woods will not be afforded any of that luxury. Tiger will say that he's already won a pseudo-Slam, his "Tiger-Slam" of 2000-2001 when he won the last three majors of '00 and took his second career green jacket in 2001. However, he knows that this year's task is wholly different and all the more challenging, since there is no question of its merits.

He is also fully aware that every shot he makes, every putt he reads and every nose he picks will be intensely scrutinized by fans and the media, Gary McCord aside.

Woods will be playing a course that he has never played before and an army of players hungry for the chance to go down in history as the third man to bring a Grand Slam's quest to the ground will be gunning for him.

Unfortunately for the field, no one has stepped up yet when Woods has been in the driver's seat; he has never finished second in a major and has never lost when holding or sharing the lead through 54 holes. And last month's victory at Bethpage was also the first time Woods had ever seen the course, which boasted arguably the toughest conditions ever witnessed at a U.S. Open.

Regardless, Muirfield sets up to be an interesting challenge for Woods. Although not as long as Bethpage, where the par-70, 7,214-yard gauntlet seemingly stretched to 7,500 yards with the rain, Muirfield's 148 bunkers and severe rough will force all players to carefully craft their shots. And with its relatively short yardage, more players will have a better chance to play well and potentially win than at the lengthy Bethpage.

Woods will also have history against his side; Muirfield, near Edinburgh, was the site of Jack Nicklaus' failure to continue the Grand Slam pursuit in 1972, when Lee Trevino edged him for a one-stroke victory.

So who will challenge at Muirfield? Last month saw the true emergence of Sergio Garcia, but his battles with the fans and critique of the USGA about supposed "Tiger-favoring" raises questions about his ability to remain mentally focused under pressure. Phil Mickelson is always a perennial candidate, but his presence at the U.S. Open seemed to reveal more about a potential Hugo Boss sports bra deal rather than major titles.

This course will reward the strategist, one who can play smart shots and stay clear of the rough and bunkers.

Nick Faldo, in the midst of a career resurgence with his showing at the U.S. Open, seems to be a smart choice; he won the last two British Opens held at Muirfield and is well regarded for his ability to place shots strategically.

Other possibilities include Ernie Els, the smooth swinging South African, and European players such as Jose Maria Olazabal or Padraig Harrington.

But Woods is still undoubtedly the favorite, and all the players are well aware of what this weekend means as they try not only to win a major but to write their names in the history books.

Mostly everyone regards Muirfield as the biggest roadblock in his path, with the upcoming PGA Championship at Hazeltine CC measuring even longer than Bethpage at 7,360 yards, playing right into Tiger's power alley.

Jack Nicklaus himself has recently said that the only obstacle preventing Tiger from winning this weekend is Tiger himself, and the Golden Bear may be correct. It will take a dual-headed performance of both precision shot-making and mental focus to prevail at Muirfield, and Woods has proven he possesses both aspects of the game.