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Alone In The Crowd At the Nelson, a rested Tiger Woods stood out as the odds-on favorite to win the U.S. Open

Fred Couples was annoyed, squirming as he waited in front of a
bank of television cameras for his postround interview on a busy
Saturday afternoon at the TPC Four Seasons Resort in Irving,
Texas. "Come on!" he said to no one in particular. "The games are
on." The King of the Couch Potatoes didn't want to miss another
minute of the NBA playoffs, the games that render the regular
season meaningless.

Funny, or perhaps not, Tiger Woods is doing the same to the PGA
Tour. The Verizon Byron Nelson Classic ranks among the Tour's
best stops, but Woods's return to action for the first time since
he won his fourth straight major, at last month's Masters,
underscored how diminished the Nelson and lesser tournaments have
become. Because of Woods's history-making accomplishments, the
majors are the playoffs. They matter. The other tournaments--well,
they matter less.

The Nelson had an exciting finish, a four-hole playoff during
which Robert Damron and Scott Verplank went shot for shot until
Damron finally coaxed in an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th
for his first win. For Woods and those chasing him, though, the
Nelson was really the start of open--as in U.S. Open--season.
Officially, the Open started with local qualifying at 100 sites.
Unofficially, the Open began the moment Woods arrived at the
Nelson to start his drive for five.

Woods and his neighbor Mark O'Meara had planned to stop at
Tulsa's Southern Hills, the site of next month's Open, on the way
to Irving for a practice round, but O'Meara's mother, Nelda, died
on May 4, and Woods attended her funeral on May 8 in Orlando
before flying to Texas. That his game was a little rusty came as
no surprise. "I've been laying low," he said, acknowledging that
he'd played little golf since the Masters. That he didn't win the
Nelson--he tied for third--failed to change his status as the
overwhelming favorite for Tulsa.

Woods struggled with his game, at least by his standards, for
three days before a final-round charge came up short. He was
seven under through the first 12 holes on Sunday, which put him
in a tie for the lead and in sight of his first sub-60 round, but
he bogeyed the 14th and settled for giving the leaders a good
scare. Woods's 63 left him at 14 under and tied with David Duval
and Nick Price, three strokes behind Damron and Verplank.

For Woods, the Nelson was a good start, and the other players
knew it. "He's on cruise control until June, believe me," said
Price, who won the 1994 PGA at Southern Hills. "He knows what
he's working for. He showed that in March and April. The majors
are everything to him. Whatever happens in between is a bonus."

Here's something scarier than Charles Barkley with an open mike:
Woods is having a better season in 2001 than he had in '00, when
his 10 wins, including three majors, were the best year any
golfer ever had. Do the math. Woods has three victories, the same
number as at this time last year, except that the major and the
wannabe major (the Players Championship) he has won in '01 are to
the '00 Mercedes Championships and Pebble Beach Pro-Am what Kenny
G is to Bill Clinton as a saxophonist.

There's a catch to the better-in-2001 theory, though: It's
almost impossible to imagine Woods having a summer as remarkable
as last year's. Starting with the Memorial, Woods won six of
eight tournaments, including three straight majors. Then again,
last summer's hot streak was not unlike his performance in the
summer of 1999. That year, starting in Germany two weeks before
the Memorial, Woods won 10 of 13 starts, including the PGA. Once
could be a fluke. Twice is a trend. So you know what to expect
in the coming weeks, Woods flew to Germany on Monday to play in
the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Alveslohe. After that he'll take a
week off and then go to the May 31-June 3 Memorial in Dublin,
Ohio. He'll take another week off before the Open from June 14
to 17.

Here are some more helpful figures. Woods is batting .273 on the
Tour, having won 27 of 99 starts as a pro. Since the beginning of
1999, he has been Teddy Ballgame--20 wins in 50 events, a .400
average. Jack Nicklaus was 24 for 135 (.178) in his first six
seasons on Tour, and his best stretch was a 26-for-87 (.299) run
from '71 through '75.

These days, though, it's all about the majors, and the numbers
favor Woods in that category too. He has six, including five of
the last six and, of course, four in a row. "Jack won 18 majors
in 24 years," Price says. "Tiger's doing a lot better than that,
but it's far-fetched to think he'll maintain this pace. If Tiger
isn't on his A game, he can be beaten. My advice for the young
guys is to do what Hal Sutton did last year at the Players--don't
make mistakes."

It would've been a mistake, for instance, to figure that Woods
wouldn't be a factor at the Nelson simply because he'd been busy
during his month off. He spent four days in bed with the flu
after the Masters, and then he put on a youth clinic in Long
Beach, Calif., at the muni course (El Dorado Park) he played as
a youngster. He did another clinic, in Birmingham; filmed a
Wheaties commercial; taped action sequences for an updated
version of his video golf game; worked on an instruction book;
hosted Tiger Jam IV in Las Vegas; played nine holes with Barkley
and Samuel L. Jackson; and raised $95,000 by auctioning the
pro-am pairing with him in the Williams World Challenge. (The
pairing comes with a personal 30-minute lesson. We can imagine:
"First, drive it 320 yards, like this"--wham!--"and then....")
Woods's minions, meanwhile, signed him up to play in a
tournament in New Zealand next January, at the home course of
his caddie, Steve Williams, for a $2 million appearance fee,
which is about what he's getting to go to Germany this week.
Woods is also close to finalizing an endorsement deal with Disney.

He was clearly glad to get back on the course, and the Nelson was
a good first step toward Southern Hills. "I was pleased to hang
in there without my best stuff," Woods said on Sunday. "I've been
working to get my game to where I'd feel competitive, and I
didn't feel that way until today."

For those chasing him, however, the Nelson was a bad omen. Woods
was beatable last week, but none of the usual suspects rose to
the occasion. Where was, say, No. 2-ranked Phil Mickelson? He
had to make birdies on three of the final four holes last Friday
just to make the cut, at one under, and finished 28th. How about
No. 3, Ernie Els? A week after finishing third in New Orleans,
he made some swing changes and missed the cut by six shots. "I
don't know what planet I was on," said Els, "but to change your
swing the day before a tournament when you're playing well is
crazy. It was committing swing suicide." And Duval? He had
fallen from third to fifth in the World Ranking in the last four
months, but at the Nelson was tied for the lead with Verplank,
at 11 under after two rounds. He was only three under on the
weekend, however.

Vijay Singh, 44th in the putting stats last week, might've
finished higher than 11th had he not looked as if he were
wrestling a moray eel every time he put a cross-handed grip on
his mid-length putter. Justin Leonard, with only one win since
the '98 Players, resembled a contender again. Butch Harmon has
helped refine Leonard's swing, and the changes finally clicked in
last Saturday, when Leonard tied the course record with a 61 at
Las Colinas. On Sunday, though, when it was time for a finishing
kick, Leonard didn't have one, shooting a 69 to tie for sixth.

The bottom line: The U.S. Open is still four weeks away, but no
one is poised to challenge Woods. "Tiger has set new standards,"
says Lee Janzen, a two-time Open winner who missed the cut in
Irving. "Everything he said he was going to do, he has done. He's
limiting the number of tournaments the rest of us can win. I wish
I'd retired before he came along."


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Shortfall Duval was among the usual suspects who didn't seize the chance to beat Woods.

"Jack won 18 majors in 24 years," says Price. "Tiger's doing a
lot better than that, but it's far-fetched to think he'll
maintain this pace."