Golf Will Survive Without a Grand Slam by Woods

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By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 14, 2008; 5:39 PM

It is almost tempting to joke today about the fact that Tiger Woods got to within four victories of winning the 2008 Grand Slam. Or, to put it another way, Trevor Immelman is one win closer to a sweep of the major championships than Woods.

That, however, entirely misses several points. The first being what took place this past weekend at Augusta National Golf Club; the second being the remarkable death-grip Woods holds on his sport -- even in defeat.

Woods is so good so often that it is easy to forget that he is (occasionally) fallible, that there will be weeks when he can't put the ball in the fairway consistently and his putting will be merely good as opposed to spectacular.

The sad thing about that is there is a tendency not to credit those who beat him (it hasn't been a long list lately), but rather to talk about what Woods didn't do well. Immelman is an extremely worthy champion, a rising young player with a superb golf swing who fought off the nerves anyone is going to have trying to win his first major, while being chased by Woods, to make several clutch putts on the back nine -- most notably the 20-footer from off the green at the 11th that allowed him to have enough cushion to handle a splash-down double bogey at the 16th.

Immelman is 28, which means he's the only player in the world under 30 currently holding a major title. He's the first South African to win the Masters since Gary Player won his third in 1978. There's a sweet symmetry to his relationship with Player, not only because Player has been a mentor to him but because Player set the all-time record by teeing it up in his 51st Masters while Immelman was winning his first. Add in Immelman coming back four months after surgery to remove a tumor from his diaphragm and you have a wonderful story.

Except (and this really isn't anyone's fault) all the questions aren't about Immelman leading from wire-to-wire but about Woods not winning. That's just the way it is in golf these days. Years ago, when Arnold Palmer was trying to win one last time near the end of his career, he was caught from behind at the Hawaiian Open by a pro named Gary Groh. The lead on the wire story that day was, "Arnie lost again." Groh was mentioned somewhere in the third paragraph.

Groh, a genuinely nice man, laughed when he was asked about Palmer's loss being the story rather than his victory. "I'd have written it the same way," he said. "The check I got for winning was probably double what it would have been if not for Arnold Palmer."

Today's players know the same is true of Woods. Immelman's check for $1.35 million -- not to mention how much the win will be worth to him away from the golf course -- is markedly higher because of the visibility Woods has brought to the game. Immelman gushed about Woods, justifiably proud of himself for hanging on to beat him.

Of course Woods, and others, won't see it quite that way. They will accurately point out that Woods drove the ball all over the lot for most of the week and missed several key putts, especially on Sunday. They will conveniently forget that he is the greatest scrambler in the history of golf and keeps himself in tournaments when he doesn't bring his "A" game to the tee by making pars no one on earth would even think about trying to make. And, while Woods will wave his hand in disgust when a 20-footer goes in for birdie at the 18th on Sunday as if he has never made a putt in his life, they will forget the 50-footer he made at the 11th for birdie and the up-and-downs he converted all week. Sure, he missed a five-footer for birdie at the 13th but how did he get to that five-footer? Drive in the trees, punch out, gorgeous wedge to five feet. Ho-hum. Other guys would have had a five-footer for six; his was for four.

What makes it so difficult to put the wooden stake through Woods's heart, even in weeks when his game isn't all there, is that he's so competitive -- he can will himself to stay in contention with extraordinary recovery shots and the occasional ho-hum 50-footer. That, and the fact that anytime he's trailing on the leader board everyone ahead of him develops a crick in their neck looking back to see where he is. Call it a Tiger tick. They've all got it.

Immelman played the "don't look at the scoreboard," game on Sunday and, since he won, there's no arguing with it. Generally speaking though it is absolutely stupid to not know what's going on around you on Sunday. Not looking didn't seem to calm him very much and what if his lead had been one or he'd been tied playing 18? Don't you need to know that? Imagine playing any other sport without knowing the score. The two greatest players in the history of the game, Woods and Nicklaus, never once walked by a scoreboard without checking it.

Woods began the year by saying on his web site that he thought a calendar Grand Slam was "easily attainable," this year. He did that, no doubt, to try to reach a mindset where he believed it could happen and would happen.


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