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Great players define their eras, and while Tiger Woods prepares
to open a new epoch in golf, he has already done enough to close
a fallow period on Tour that had lasted for more than a decade.
Woods's talent is so obvious, his mental toughness so palpable
and his commitment to history so strong that in just three
months as a pro he has convinced his peers that a new day is
dawning. That belief has brought an end to a long, fitful night
going back to 1985, when Tom Watson stopped being the best
player in the world and Seve Ballesteros dropped the mantle of

Hindsight tells us that while golf has been congratulating
itself for the lowest scoring and best collective group of
players ever seen, the game has actually been in a slump. The
years between Watson's heyday and the arrival of Woods will be
viewed as a transitional period because the star players failed
either to stay on top or to build truly outstanding records.

To this point, none of the best golfers since the mid-'80s merit
a spot in the game's pantheon. Greg Norman, the most consistent
player during the era, has won a respectable number of
tournaments but only two major championships. Nick Price had
four strong seasons during which he won three majors and 10
other tournaments, yet he seemed to withdraw from the spotlight
after peaking in 1994. So did Fred Couples, who looks upon the
awesome form he demonstrated in 1992 as an aberration. Curtis
Strange and Sandy Lyle had impressive runs in the late 1980s but
lost their way in the '90s. Only Nick Faldo has made an
alltimer's imprint, winning six majors. Still, in more than 150
other tournaments in the U.S. since 1984, Faldo has won just

The past decade is best characterized by a change in priorities
among the players, who are now inclined to choose comfort over
commitment. As the money available to the best golfers has
reached previously unimaginable levels, they have been afforded
a choice: strain toward greatness and all the headaches that go
with it, or settle for a comfortable level of achievement that
guarantees financial security, family time and convenience--all
the things that in the past came only with greatness.

As the rewards have increased, the urgency to be great has
waned. Some players, like Couples and Price, have wondered if
being the best is worth the hassle. Others have excused
themselves from the race with the rationale that it's no longer
possible for a player to separate himself from the pack. This
logic holds that the influx of good players, the leveling
influence of new equipment, and the very by-products of
success--the erosion of a player's routine and desire--conspire
to limit anyone's time at the top. Therefore, the theory goes,
winning three tournaments constitutes an awesome year, and not
only will there never be another Jack Nicklaus, there will also
never be another dominant player.

After a decade of mediocrity the arguments were becoming harder
to refute, until Woods single-handedly exposed the creed of
lower expectations as the rationalization of the comfortable
crowd. Imposing limits now seems silly, and every milestone is
back in play. In April, when Nicklaus foresaw more than 10 green
jackets in Woods's future, the prediction seemed absurd. Seven
months later, it doesn't. The Grand Slam? Why not? Byron
Nelson's 11 straight? Conceivable.

For the rest of the top players, it's gut check time. The
message is clear: Woods is not interested in finding his comfort
zone, and those who plan to compete with him had better get out
of theirs. To their credit, many of the players look forward to
the test. "I've got to do some extra sit-ups," says Faldo,

"Us cagey veterans, we're going to want to kick this kid's
butt," says Mark Calcavecchia, with half a smile.

"Tiger gives us a new challenge," says Tom Lehman, the Tour's
best player in 1996. "Someday there will be a dominant player
who wins two majors and eight tournaments in a year. Maybe it
will be Tiger, or somebody motivated by Tiger."

Whoever that turns out to be--Woods or one of the many motivated
somebodies he has energized--an era has ended.

COLOR PHOTO: JOE PICCIOLO [Tiger Woods playing golf]