Garcia joins the can't-beat-Tiger club

Posted: Monday, June 17, 2002

The latest member of the ''I-Can't-Beat-Tiger-Woods'' club almost seemed too young to join.

But like membership in the mob or AARP, it's one of those offers you don't have the option of turning down. Sergio Garcia's lodge brothers know all about that.

The 22-year-old Spaniard is four years Woods' junior, which means that unlike charter members Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, there's still a chance Garcia can opt out. Then again, Woods dismissed and then dismantled the youngster so convincingly Sunday that the relationship may already be set in stone.

They were never rivals, no matter how promising that prospect appeared when they first crossed competitive paths three years ago at the PGA Championship, or even after Garcia beat a fatigued, flu-weakened Tiger in the made-for-TV ''Battle at Bighorn'' the year after that. Now it appears they will never be equals, either.

At the start of the final round, a brief chink appeared in Woods' armor. After just one three-putt over the first 54 holes, Tiger three-putted the first two greens. Garcia, who started the day at 1-under and four strokes behind Woods, made routine pars and suddenly found himself just two back.

One group ahead, Mickelson had birdied the first hole to reach 1-under and the possibility they would tag-team Woods -- so that one or the other could wrestle away the trophy at the end of the afternoon -- seemed very real.

And if the crucible of a U.S. Open final round wasn't testing enough, the raucous New York galleries lining every fairway and green at Bethpage Black made each hole sound and feel like an NFL stadium. Tougher still, the crowds seemed less intent on choosing sides than making sure every competitor suffered at least a little.

They all did.

But only one got to celebrate afterward.

''This one was hard fought,'' Woods said. ''It was brutal how hard this golf course played.''

Which is why -- once Woods battled the weather to a standstill in the second round and put some distance between himself and the rest of the field -- the outcome was never really in doubt. Tiger already has his Ph.D in toughness.

When he was young, his father, Earl Woods, used to jangle coins, drop clubs or cough in the middle of the kid's backswing to maintain his focus. Other times, he kicked Tiger's golf balls into ruts or bad lies, teaching him to deal with adversity.

The lessons went on for years, and Sunday, sitting in a hotel room nearby and watching the drama unfold on TV, Earl Woods recalled what he told Tiger at the end.

''I told him, 'I promise you one thing: You'll never meet another person as tough as you,''' Earl recalled. ''He hasn't. And he won't.''

Letting Earl stay back at his hotel instead of coming to the course and fighting the crowds was the only Father's Day indulgence he asked his son to grant. And just about the time Tiger smoked a long iron to reach the par-5, 13th green in two, Earl's memory seemed less a boast than a simple statement of fact.

Mickelson had made birdie there just moments earlier to scale Tiger's lead back to two strokes. But Woods nearly sank his eagle try, and by the time he tapped in for birdie to restore a three-stroke edge, Earl's gaze was already fixed on the distance.

''If you look at it objectively, you see him improving, right before your eyes,'' he said.

What a scary thought. Tiger has now won seven of the last 11 majors, two more than anybody else over the same span and as many in three years as Arnold Palmer did in his entire career. Tiger's total of eight ties him with Tom Watson. Completing the Grand Slam -- in a calendar year -- would enable him to pass Gary Player and Ben Hogan (9 each) and leave only Walter Hagen (11) and Jack Nicklaus (18) to be reeled in.

Nicklaus has been the goal all along, the player whose achievements Tiger taped to his bedroom wall before beating him to every one. As one signpost after another recedes in the distance, the question of whether Woods' competitors simply choke or gag because he forces them to seems irrelevant now. The only rival Tiger has is history.

Nicklaus said recently, ''The whole world isn't going to fall down forever. They'll figure it out. It's going to happen.''

But Nicklaus had no way to know how helpless his competition felt. The great ones never do.

''Going head-to-head against Nicklaus in a major was like trying to drain the Pacific Ocean with a teacup,'' Tom Weiskopf said in a recent interview with Golf Digest. ''You stand on the first tee knowing that your very best golf might not be good enough.''

Woods' contemporaries know the feeling.

''Coming into this week, I thought that even par would be an incredible score. I did that,'' Mickelson said. ''But now I realize I've got to raise that level if I want to win tournaments when Tiger is playing.''

Garcia was born the same year that Nicklaus won the last of his four U.S. Opens and five PGAs.

''I didn't see Jack Nicklaus in his prime,'' Garcia said. ''But it doesn't get much better than this.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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