Publish date:

Halfway Home With a wire-to-wire win at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods took a giant step toward the Grand Slam

They embraced like soldiers returned from a grueling battle,
brought together by the futility of their cause. Darkness had
descended on New York's Bethpage State Park on Sunday, and the
loudest, most brazen crowd in U.S. Open history had dispersed
when Sergio Garcia spotted Jim MacKay, the caddie for fellow
failed warrior Phil Mickelson, on a walkway outside the
clubhouse. Garcia, fresh off watching playing partner Tiger
Woods secure the second leg of the Grand Slam, told MacKay, "I'm
sorry I couldn't put more pressure on him." As he turned to
leave the grounds, the impetuous Spaniard stopped and gave the
caddie a heartfelt hug. "You know what?" Garcia said. "It's just
a matter of time."

Perhaps, but the clock keeps ticking, and guess which relentless
26-year-old keeps kicking butt? Woods, in winning this blessedly
unruly U.S. Open by three strokes over Mickelson, took home his
eighth career major and continued to siphon the suspense out of
his sport. As with the Masters in April, Woods won going away
despite a merely workmanlike final round, and there's scant hope
that things will be any different at next month's British Open
at Muirfield in Scotland. The man has won seven of the last 11
majors and with hardly a hint of drama: He was the only player
to finish under par at Bethpage, and he led wire to wire. It
sounds crazy, but wake us up in August when his Grand Slam is
almost complete.

At least this much is compelling: After a wondrous weekend of
wild whacks, wisecracks and wet hacks, the Tiger hunters are on
the loose. Not only are the world's next-best golfers desperate
to derail him, but also a majority of the sport's fans--as
represented by 42,500 chatterboxes each day at Bethpage--would
love to see Woods at least squirm. If Garcia is correct, and
it's inevitable that a bona fide threat will emerge, that dude,
whoever he is, had better get with the program. "I know it will
happen eventually," Mickelson insisted after his valiant weekend
run at Woods. "Having the chance to compete against arguably the
greatest player of all time is a special opportunity, and I'm
getting closer to breaking through."

For now, as the four-day adventure on the Bethpage Black Course
confirmed, Woods is Long Island iced tea to his foes' Diet
Snapple. He has a sizable edge on them physically and
mentally--and make no mistake, this was a highly emotional
event. With the Open's being staged on a municipal course for
the first time, in the shadow of the city that doesn't sleep,
the overflowing galleries provided a constant barrage of blunt
critiques and heartfelt passion. Imagine golfers lining up putts
in front of the rightfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium, and you
can picture the scene at the 17th green, where fans chanted,
"Let's go Mick-el-son," and sang Happy Birthday to the
second-place finisher (he turned 32 on Sunday), and where one
heckler gurgled, "Hey, Phil--are those A cups?" Classy.

On paper the People's Open was won by the people's champion, as
Woods grew up among the ball-mashing masses in Southern
California. "I've slept in cars to get tee times," Woods said on
Sunday. "I grew up playing at public facilities, too." Yet
judging by the disparity in crowd noise, you'd have thought
Woods was a pampered country clubber while Mickelson was the
second coming of Arnold Palmer. Phil's Phan Club was so rowdy on
Sunday that he was forced to back away from a 22-foot birdie
putt on the 14th green because spectators lining the 15th tee,
some 100 yards away, were chanting his name. (Mickelson settled
for par, but the place still went berserk.)

Even Garcia, who sparred with spectators during the first three
days--most notably, he made what appeared to be an obscene
gesture to some loudmouths on the 16th fairway on Friday--got an
inordinate amount of love on Sunday. It seemed that the New
Yorkers, having dogged El Nino for everything from his incessant
waggle while regripping his club to his famous girlfriend,
tennis star Martina Hingis, came to respect Garcia for his

Most of all, of course, fans wanted to see Garcia--or Mickelson,
or anyone--stare down Woods. Pandemonium reigned late in
Saturday's round when, within seconds, Mickelson birdied the
17th hole and Garcia, after sinking a birdie putt on 16, turned
and pointed toward Mickelson in a gesture of unity.

To be fair, Woods got plenty of applause, but it was a more
muted reaction. Casual golf fans admire Woods, perhaps even
revere him, but his steely demeanor on the course and his
inaccessibility off it make it hard for them to get close to
him. For one thing, while he seems pleasant enough when he's not
inside the ropes, the man almost never displays anything other
than a focused scowl during play. Has any great golfer--hell,
any great athlete--ever looked so grim while doing his job?
Throw in the machinelike efficiency with which he dispatches his
foes, and the distance grows. He got one of his biggest ovations
on Thursday after ducking into a portable toilet en route to the
15th tee, then emerging a minute later, as if by relieving
himself he had revealed his humanity. "Are you guys clapping
because I'm potty-trained?" Woods quipped.

Cheering for Woods in a major is like rooting for rain in a
thunderstorm. On Thursday and Friday, in whipping through rounds
of 67 and 68, Woods was the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal
throwing down dunks on helpless centers. On the weekend Tiger
wisely ground out rounds of 70 and 72; his play was akin to a
dominant football team's protecting a lead by running the ball
in the second half. Anytime anyone got too close, Woods
answered. On Sunday, when birdies on 11 and 13 brought Mickelson
to within two, Woods quickly killed the buzz by blistering a
drive on the par-5 13th, then barely missing a 20-foot eagle
putt before tapping in for a birdie.

As with pal Michael Jordan, perhaps his only American athletic
peer, Woods overwhelms opponents with his talent. Of equal
importance is his superior conditioning, an almost insufferable
competitive drive and a vicious work ethic. At 8:40 p.m. on
Saturday, well after his competitors had left the grounds, Woods
wrapped up an hourlong session on the range. He cut through the
darkness and walked upstairs to his locker, where he found a
handwritten apology from Garcia, who, after shooting a 74 in
relentless rain the previous day, had made some inflammatory
comments. Referring to Woods, who had completed his Friday round
before the weather was at its worst, Garcia said, "It always
seems like there's one guy who's lucky when he needs to be." He
also took a shot at the U.S. Golf Association, saying, "If Tiger
would've been out there, the USGA would have stopped play."

Upon reading Garcia's note, Woods broke into a huge smile. Then
a reporter asked Woods if he was having any fun playing this
tournament. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I just love competing. The
fans are great; you have no choice but to enjoy them. Really,
this is great."

Yeah, great for you, the cynics in the Open field might have
replied. Garcia was hardly the only player insinuating that
fortune was smiling upon Woods at Deathpage. At 7,214 yards, the
par-70 course was the longest in U.S. Open history, an edge for
big hitters like Woods and Mickelson. On Friday the windy and
rainy conditions left many struggling to clear the deep heather
on holes 10 and 12, at 492 and 499 yards, respectively, the
longest par-4s ever in an Open. That USGA officials refused to
provide a rescue from the fescue by moving up the tees rankled
many players. "If they keep doing this, they'll take the fun out
of the game, because only a few guys can win," groused Nick
Price, who shook off Friday's 75 and rallied to tie for eighth.
"But maybe that's what the USGA wants." Later, asked if he felt
the USGA is tailoring Open courses for Woods in particular,
Price, who has won three majors, winked and said, "It should be
obvious to you, too."

Nick Faldo, a winner of six majors, compared Friday's round to
"fighting in the jungle," and we all know Tiger is king. "Tiger
loves it when conditions are tough because he's 20 to 30 percent
better than anybody, so the tougher it is, the more he stands
out," said Faldo, who tied for fifth. While his peers spent the
day hacking out of wet, gnarly rough, Woods jacked up his game,
then waited for his pursuers to falter. They have to catch me,
Woods kept telling himself during Saturday's steady round,
knowing nobody would. By the end of the day he had stretched his
lead by a shot, to four.

Sunday's pairing with Garcia promised a compelling fight.
Sergio's salty comments, and their subsequent tabloid exposure,
inspired comparisons to classic New York feuds: Piazza versus
Clemens; Stern versus Imus; Jay-Z versus Nas. But Woods and
Garcia made nice-nice, and the showdown fizzled. Though Woods
three-putted the first two holes for bogey, Serge made no surge.
Garcia had a three-putt of his own at number 3 and proceeded to
bogey three of the next nine. He made his only birdie on the
14th and shot 74 to finish fourth, six shots back. "I had him at
the beginning, and I let him off," said Garcia. "He did what he
had to do, but he did it because I let him."

Until Garcia overcomes Woods and wins a major, such statements
will carry a whiff of delusion. Then again, Garcia is only 22;
imagine the frustration of Mickelson, who is 0 for 40 in Grand
Slam events. Criticized for risky play and collapses in big
events, Mickelson played smart, gutsy golf at Bethpage, and he
left as a better, prouder player. Now his growing legion of fans
will dare to dream: Can Mickelson stand up to Woods at Muirfield
the way Lee Trevino did 30 years ago to Jack Nicklaus, the last
man before Tiger to win the first two legs of the Slam?

That was one of many possibilities to ponder at the 18th green
as the deflated gallery followed its rousing send-off of
Mickelson with a warm ovation for Woods and Garcia on their long
walk up the fairway. It was nearly dark now, and the crescent
moon was shimmering above. Noting the obligatory presence of
Rudolph Giuliani, New York City's former mayor, a male spectator
yelled, "Rudy for President!" and a cheer ensued.

Seconds later, a female voice broke the silence: "Rudy could beat

Someday, perhaps soon, somebody will.

Won't he?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED VUICH CROWD CONTROL Woods was on top of his game all week, but when he did get off course, he had plenty of friends around.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SECOND TO ONE Mickelson scored best of all over the last two rounds, but he'd dug himself a hole with Friday's 73 in the rain.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (HINGIS) TWOSOMES Hingis (above) and Elin Nordegren kept an eye on their men, while Woods was always a step ahead of Garcia.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) [See caption above]

The four-day adventure confirmed that Woods is Long Island iced
tea to his foes' Diet Snapple.