Monday, August 21, 2006
Will anyone tame Tiger?
By Skip Bayless
As I watched Tiger roar again on Sunday and turn another major-championship field into so many 'fraidy cats, I couldn't help thinking of Jim Liu.
Jim is a Tiger cub. Jim again recently terrorized his division of the U.S. Kids World Golf Championship, which attracted 960 players from 47 states and 33 countries. Jim, of Smithtown, N.Y., won by shooting 68, 69, 67 at Pinehurst.
He's 10 years old.
So maybe when Jim is 20 and Tiger is 40 and has won 24 majors, this kid will finally have the guts and game to trade final-twosome birdies with Tiger Woods and push him to validate his greatest-ever status with a 59.
Sorry, I was daydreaming. Two-shot penalty.
I know, I should simply be thankful I got to watch every stunning shot of the exhibition Tiger Woods performed for us in winning his second PGA Championship at Medinah. He played one tournament -- one game -- while all the others played another. The final-round game he played was his greatest ever -- even greater than Pebble Beach or St. Andrews in 2000 -- because it was so intelligent, so mature, so controlled, such a devastating blend of accurate power and finesse.
No more overpowering Augusta National, Pebble and St. Andrews -- fairly wide-open courses he loves -- with tee-shot swings that made Gary Sheffield look meek. No more trying to live up to his gallery-detonating reputation by blasting his driver on every par four and five. No more allowing players with half his game to steal majors from him because he was Tiger "in the" Woods.
On the longest major-championship course ever, Tiger Woods hit his driver only twice on Sunday and won by five shots. The driver that hit the fairway was struck with three-quarters tempo. The one that missed still produced a birdie.
Now, less of Tiger is even more. He dialed it down to dial up 69, 68, 65, 68. Now Tiger has realized he can crush the field if he'll just get his tee shots in the fairway. His 3-woods and 5-woods and stinger 3-irons off the tee are plenty enough -- he still finished second in tournament driving distance at 318.2 yards -- because nobody can consistently strike more radar-locked mid-iron approaches, and nobody can chip and putt with him.
"I felt like I could make anything today," said Woods, the game's best clutch putter, who also went 4-for-4 in tournament sand saves.
This is getting 2000 scary again for any player not named Tiger Woods. No one has ever made the world's hardest game look this easy.
Still, I won't say he's the best ever until he passes Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors. But at this rate, that will happen seven majors from now, when he wins the 2008 British Open at Royal Birkdale.
Now, you can no longer downgrade his chances at even tight, high-rough, dogleg courses like Southern Hills in Tulsa, site of next year's PGA. Woods was never a threat in the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, finishing seven back of Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks.
But now, a maturing Woods can keep the head cover on his long-drive macho and beat anybody on any kind of course. He won the British Open hitting his Sasquatch driver just once in four rounds. Now he can big-foot the field on second shots alone.
Now, the only thing missing is a legitimate rival.
Look, I loved watching Woods' solo show on Sunday as much as any Woods fan. But in all objectivity, I still have to question the all-time quality of his competition. We know he's the greatest front-runner ever. But the only shootout he has won in 12 majors was against a one-Sunday wonder named Bob May, at the 2000 PGA.
Can he rally the way Nicklaus did on the final nine at the '86 Masters? Could he have won the "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry, where Nicklaus lost to Tom Watson in '77? Who knows?
Maybe Woods would have done to Nicklaus' many rivals what he has done to his -- maul them into also-ran submission. Maybe, in the '60s, '70s and '80s, today's Tiger would have consistently intimidated and broken the wills of Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros.
But I doubt it.
Woods was tied heading into Sunday's final round with Luke Donald. This was like the Big, Bad Wolf against one of the three little pigs. Woods birdied No. 1 and the short-knocking Donald quickly faded into the lengthening shadows, finishing with a 74.
Adam Scott, one of the many Next Tigers who have failed to live up their hype, did emerge from the shadows with a nice 67. But he still finished six back, and you still wonder if he's made of tough enough stuff to make the putts that win majors.
Scott was tied with Sergio Garcia, whose game might have peaked during the final round of the last PGA at Medinah, in 1999. He was 19 then, nicknamed El Nino. He had the guts, or maybe just the audacity, to shake a fist at Tiger while making a back-nine charge. But he soon proved he doesn't have the game -- especially the putter -- to shake anything but a tail feather at Tiger during majors.
Little Mike Weir went from 65 on Saturday to 73 on Sunday. Do you really think Tiger was afraid of him?
Chris DiMarco, who forced Woods into a Masters playoff and made a run at him early on the back nine at this year's British Open, finished six back. DiMarco definitely has the guts to challenge Woods, but not the game. On that playoff hole at Augusta, he had to hit 5-iron to the 18th green before Woods hit an 8-iron into birdie range.
Phil Mickelson went eye-to-eye with Tiger the first two days, tying him on Thursday with a 69, but falling three shots behind him on Friday. He finished 12 back after Sunday's 74.
Now you have to wonder if we've seen the best of Mickelson.
He finally broke through and won his first major, The Masters, at age 33. He won last year's PGA. Yet Tiger was able neither time to breathe any fire on the back of Phil's neck because Tiger was allowing Hank Haney to rebuild his swing.
Mickelson won his third major at this year's Masters, yet again Woods failed to apply pressure on Sunday because his birdie putts burned lip after lip. With his father gravely ill, Woods obviously was trying too hard to win one last Masters for Pops.
After Earl Woods died, Woods spent six weeks in mourning without much practicing. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Mickelson might have won if he hadn't missed the 18th fairway with his drive.
Yet he drove the ball poorly for four rounds.
Mickelson hasn't been the same since that collapse. Is he getting a little too fat and happy with his three majors? Will he ever again be driven enough to push Woods the way Palmer and Trevino and Watson pushed Nicklaus?
Nicklaus finished second 19 times in majors. He recently said he would have tried a little harder if he had known a kid named Tiger would come along. But many of those seconds happened because Nicklaus was simply beaten by great players.
Ernie Els, who now seems rather content with his place in golf history, finished 12 behind Woods at the PGA.
Chad Campbell, another Next Tiger, shot the low round of the day, 66, but finished 14 back. Jim Furyk, 15 back. Goosen and Davis Love, 16 back. Aaron Baddeley and Stuart Appleby, 22 back. Vijay Singh, Charles Howell III, Michael Campbell and Camilo Villegas missed the cut.
Today's fields definitely are deeper in good players. But Woods doesn't have to contend with as many great players as Nicklaus did.
Maybe when Jim Liu is 29 and Tiger is 49...
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.