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December 06, 2001

In the Tiger's Den
By Dan Patrick

Let me be the first, or the hundred and first, to congratulate Tiger Woods on his spectacular record in the majors this year. I think it is a grave error to do anything other than enjoy and appreciate what Woods can do on a golf course. He is a very special athlete at the beginning of what promises to be a spectacular career.

 Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' fifth major title was certainly his toughest.

I pushed to cover the NBA Finals in the early 1990s because of Michael Jordan. I knew I was covering a rare greatness and I wanted to see it. I feel the same way about Tiger. As time passes, I will push to cover some of the majors in golf. He's that good and I want to savor it.

Right now, though, Tiger is not allowing anyone to step up as a true rival. He is starting to dominate his generation. There is no Tom Watson to his Jack Nicklaus. I don't want Tiger to lose or anything like that. I just think it will be better for Tiger, and us, if he has challengers. I am sure that we will remember the PGA and the performance of Bob May more than we will remember how he ran away with it at Pebble Beach and St Andrews. May forced Tiger to step up and deliver and he did.

I wonder, though, when someone is going to emerge from the field and give Tiger a true, consistent rival for his career. The Yankees had the Dodgers, the Celtics had the Lakers and Jack Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Watson and others to push them. Champions are often measured by whom they vanquish. No offense to May, who looked Tiger in the eye and shot a 66 on a Sunday at a major, but unless this was the start of something big, he will return to his comfortable career as a PGA journeyman.

Where were Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III or Vijay Singh? Anybody see Colin Montgomerie or Justin Leonard recently? If I was one of those guys, I would be livid that I never made it to the first page of the leader board this weekend. These are the premier players in the world but we are not surprised when they finish back in the pack. We hold Tiger accountable. If he's not near the top, we go looking for answers to the mystery of his lesser performance. With other guys, well, we do what they do and it's wrong. We chalk it up to Tiger's greatness and just shrug it off.

What I have heard this year from most of the other top golfers is what they probably think is the right thing to say. "Tiger's too good. We are playing for second. I take my hat off to him." I think those are the wrong things to say. I would like to see more defiance, more competitive spirit, more fire. These guys have their money and comfort all set up. The only thing left for them is the trophies at the majors. I'd love to hear one guy say "Nice win, Tiger. But I'm gonna get you next time." I'd love to hear one of these guys say that they want to take him down.

Now it won't be easy. Tiger is a golf geek who lives for the game. And that's a compliment. Jordan had distractions. Tiger doesn't. The other golfers will have to catch him because it will be years before he falters on his own.

Many golfers have followed Tigers's lead when it comes to physical fitness and I applaud that. The one thing left to take from his game is his competitiveness. They all should be fist-pumping right back at him. Staring at him when they drain a 12 footer for birdie. They all seem so polite and caught up in the overblown and archaic sense of decorum that is part of golf. Tiger respects that historical sense of propriety as much as anyone but his reactions reveal how much winning and scoring means to him and that deflates golfer after golfer. We have to admit that Tiger has changed the whole game. No one will catch him if they don't start playing with the fire that Tiger has now added to the list of things it takes to win.

I am not suggesting that the other guys start doing cartwheels on the green but a little shouting over the crowd or some exuberance might give Tiger something to think about. "Hey, I'm in a fight here." And that can only help the other guy.

Michael Jordan walked away from the NBA partly out of boredom. His return was a self-created challenge. Can I leave the game on top and then come back and still win? I wonder if, down the road, Tiger may lose his focus. Because consistently beating Ernie Els by double digits may eventually lose its power as a motivating force. A rival on the course will give Tiger's achievements perspective and depth. And it will give him a reason to stay sharp.

Because if the best golfer we can honestly compare Tiger to is Michael Jordan, we're in for some fairly bland years on the PGA Tour.

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