Woods still looking for his rivals


FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Is it time yet? How many championship trophies does Tiger Woods have to raise above his Nike cap before somebody ... anybody ... causes him to glance over his shoulder? How many $1 million checks does he have to cash before someone puts a capital R in rivalry?

For the seventh time in the last 11 majors, Woods walked off the 18th green with more silver to buff. On Sunday, in the gloaming that enveloped Bethpage Black, the USGA happily handed him its U.S. Open trophy. He already has a green jacket waiting on a hangar for him back at Augusta. And it's a no-brainer that the Ladbrokes bookies in London will make Woods the prohibitive favorite to win next month's British Open at Muirfield. The smart guys in Vegas will do the same when the PGA Championship arrives a month later at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Woods is the human sure thing. He's more reliable than Greenwich Time, more predictable than one of those, "You-know-you're-redneck-if... '' jokes. If he wins many more of these things he's going to get writer's cramp from endorsing all the cashier checks.

It would be nice if a challenger emerged from the sea of creased Polo and Tommy Hilfiger shirts on the PGA Tour, someone to put a sweat stain under Woods's armpit, someone who could give him a nervous tic, or at the very least, make him look vulnerable.

David Duval was supposed to be that guy. Duval had the game, the gaze, the hint of greatness required to create a legitimate rivalry with Woods. But it didn't happen. There were injuries and inconsistencies. There were too many tournaments where Duval became less and less a factor.

Then it was Phil Mickelson's turn. Or Ernie Els's time. Or Sergio Garcia's opportunity to challenge the great Eldrick. Any more names and you'll have enough for a conga line.

Mickelson, who was serenaded by the sentimental Bethpage galleries, turned 32 Sunday and is now 0 for his last 36 majors. He's has 12 top-7 finishes in those tournaments, including two seconds and a third in the last three majors -- no small feat -- but until he actually wins one of these things, how can you describe him as a Woods rival? Mickelson is a wonderful sportsman, but he has spent his entire professional career shaking the winner's hand after one of the Big Four. That hand usually belongs to Woods.

One of these days Mickelson will hoist his own majors trophy over his head. His game is too good to be denied that moment. But a threat to Woods's legacy? Not now. Maybe not ever.

Of course, Mickelson concedes nothing, which is the way it should be. Asked Sunday to discuss Woods's place among the legends of the game, Mickelson took the fifth.

"That's not really something. . . a conversation I care to be part of,'' said the diplomatic Mickelson. "He's certainly a wonderful player. I'm not taking anything away from him.''

Translation: Bugger off with the Tiger questions.

Els and Woods produced enough golf friction at the 2000 Mercedes Championship in Kapalua to spark talk of a rivalry. Woods won in a playoff for the ages. "What can I say?'' said Els that day. "He's kind of a freak, you know?''

Since then, Els has taken the majors O-fer. Woods is 6 of 10.

Next. . .

Garcia finished second to Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah and everyone figured, game on. Garcia has charisma, innocence, a 22-year-old's ignorance. He keeps saying he isn't intimidated by Woods, and he keeps ending up in Woods's rearview mirror.

"I didn't see Jack Nicklaus in his prime,'' said Garcia, who was paired with Woods Sunday. "I'll tell you one thing, it doesn't get much better than this. He's able to do whatever it takes.''

Nicklaus was like that, too. But Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer to shake his cage. He had Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Tom Watson to challenge him on a regular basis. Tiger has nobody.

Mickelson inches closer to Woods's shadow. Garcia shows tiny signs of majors progress. Meanwhile, you hear noises about young Charles Howell III becoming the newest threat to Woods's dominance. We'll see. First he has to learn how not to dress in the dark.

As for Woods himself, he doesn't sound like a guy bored with seeing his name engraved in silver. He has his dreams, including the one where he surpasses Nicklaus's 18 majors. Woods has eight. . . and counting.

"I'm only 26,'' Woods said, as he held his newest trophy. "It's not like my career is finished. I've got a long way to go. In that span of time I'm going to try to get better.''

Good news for legacies. Bad news for Phil and the fellas.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at gene.wojciechowski@espnmag.com.