Rivals re-emerging

2004-06-18 13:07
Cape Town - For a bunch of years, Tiger Woods was firmly between the ears of most of the best players, a little voice whispering, "You have no chance to beat me". But one by one, the pretenders to the throne are re-emerging as serious contenders, in part because Woods has let them off the ropes. You can now add Sergio Garcia to that list.

For the second consecutive week, Woods had a chance to win on Sunday but couldn't get the job done, finishing one stroke out of the playoff won by Garcia at the Byron Nelson Classic.

Since Woods last won a major championship - the 2002 US Open - Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Mike Weir have all won majors. And all have to be considered threats when the US Open is played at Shinnecock Hills.

So should Vijay Singh, who has won eight times since Woods last captured a major, including three victories already this year, and is No 3 in the World Golf Ranking.

There was a time when it was said of Jack Nicklaus on Sunday at a tournament: "He knew he was going to beat you. You knew he was going to beat you. And he knew that you knew that he was going to beat you." That was once the case with Woods.

He seemed to own the best players and was most vulnerable to the guys with lesser expectations, like Bob May and Rich Beem. At no time was Woods' control of the top players more clear than at the 2002 Masters when he went into the final round at Augusta National with Mickelson, Els, Singh and Garcia all within four strokes of his lead.

But of the four only Mickelson, with a 71 that matched Woods' final-day score, could break par, with Els (73), Garcia (75) and Singh (76) never mounting a serious charge.

To a man, the post-round comments of the four indicated they were playing the aura of Woods rather than his actuality. All said they knew Woods was not going to make any mistakes so they felt they had to play perfect rounds. That is quite simply too much excess baggage for any player to carry around in the last round of a major championship, especially at Augusta National where patience is the most important club in the bag.

Somehow, you don't get the feeling that if Singh, Els, Mickelson or Garcia are in contention with Woods in the final round at Shinnecock they will be intimidated. Tiger has let them all back into the game.

Garcia, of course, still has the added pressure of trying to get his first major championship. But there are indications that, after his dismal season in 2003 when he had only two top-10 finishes and four top-20s in 20 PGA Tour starts - falling to 95th on the money list - his swing changes are starting to kick in.

Garcia already has three top-10s this year, including a T-4 at the Masters and his victory Sunday. Garcia, who was grumpy and even rude after the Masters, in part because he feels too much attention is paid to Woods, joins Mickelson and Singh as rivals unlikely to be on Woods' Christmas card list. Of the four, Els is the only one towards whom Woods can be said to be friendly. And that should make the US Open - and all the majors for the foreseeable future - even more fun to watch.

These guys now not only believe they can beat Woods, they relish the opportunity.

For two weeks in a row now - first Wachovia and the Nelson - Woods had a chance to win and let the tournament slip away. On Sunday, he failed to birdie the par-5 16th hole and then, after keeping his hopes alive with a birdie on No.17, failed to drive it into the fairway on the final hole, ending any chance for the birdie he needed to make the playoff.

For the day, Woods hit only three fairways. If he drives the ball like that at Shinnecock, winning won't even be a question, but making the cut will.

Confidence is such an important part of any sport. Feeling you can win translates to winning, and feeling you can't virtually guarantees a loss. We have spent eight years in the Tiger Woods Era waiting for a rival to emerge, and now it seems like a whole pack of them are poised on the horizon.

There was a time when many office pools for major championships excluded Woods because he was the lock pick for whoever got the first pick. Not so now. Add Garcia to the list including Els, Mickelson, Singh and Weir among those who stand as good of a chance at Shinnecock as Woods - maybe better if he doesn't start driving the ball in the fairway.

At one time it seemed as if Woods owned his chief competitors. But now it seems as if Garcia et al have put a twist on that old quote about Nicklaus. Now, they know they can beat Woods. And they feel now that Woods knows they can beat him. And, for the first time in eight years, Woods must surely be feeling that they know that he feels he is vulnerable. And that makes it a whole new ball game.

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