Tiger Woods: Alone at the top

Well, well, Tiger Woods has just won another tournament. This time it was the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, where he successfully defended the title he won last year. Woods has now won 11 of the last 20 tournaments he’s entered.

Is this guy good, or what? Heck, he’s sensational. Why stint on our praise? He’s only 24 years old, he still feels he can improve and he’s winning everything. Well, almost everything. I’m glad to be around to watch Woods, never mind to write about him. Heck, I feel like golf aficionados must have felt when they watched Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaus in their prime.

Fun. That’s what it is to follow Woods. Just plain fun. That’s the way it’s been for me since I first heard about the young phenom seven or eight years ago. Back then, he was in the process of winning three consecutive U.S. Juniors and three consecutive U.S. Amateurs. The kid seemed unstoppable then and he seems unstoppable now.

Greatness in action

Okay, call me a fan. I am. I like watching outstanding golf. I like watching the best at anything — Robert de Niro, Anthony Hopkins or Dustin Hoffman in the movies. I like listening to John Coltrane on saxophone, to Osr Peterson on piano and to Ella Fitzgerald’s singing.

I’m old enough (barely) to remember the late Rocket Richard’s exploits and beyond that to believe Bobby Orr was the best hockey player I’ve seen. I also used to follow Wayne Gretzky whenever I could and to make sure I caught Sandy Koufax pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Excellence. That’s what I’m after. And Woods is one excellent golfer. He’s beyond excellence, really. Right now there’s Woods and everybody else. Canadian Mike Weir is playing beautiful golf and finished fourth in the Memorial. But as well as Weir is playing, Woods is the man these days. Even for Canadian golf-watchers.

Did you see how often he hit the ball close to the hole at the Memorial? Did you see that powerful three-iron he hit during the second round to eagle a par-five? It was a towering shot over the flag. Woods then holed a 20-foot putt. His playing partner Ernie Els laid up on the hole, and Els is only one of the best players in the world. But he said he was amazed by what he was seeing in Tiger’s game.

“Awesome, the guy’s awesome,” Els said. That he is.

Harrison Frazar shot 63 the first day of the Memorial. Tiger shot 71. After two more rounds, Woods, having shot 63-65, was 14 shots ahead of Frazar. This is a fact, not a criticism of Frazar. He and Woods were in different leagues. Of course Tiger is in a different league from his fellow competitors most tournaments these days.

Then there’s Greg Chalmers, a fine young New Zealand pro. He and Woods played the first two rounds together. Chalmers felt like a spectator the second round in particular.

“What I saw today with Tiger was unbelievable,” Chalmers said after witnessing his 63. “I’ve never seen anything like it and I doubt I ever will. It was probably the easiest 63 I’ve ever seen. He was so in control of everything. It was great to watch.”

Woods is well worth watching

And I wish I had been there to watch it. Years ago I would drive hundreds of miles to watch Nick Faldo, because he had complete control of the golf ball. He didn’t seem even capable of missing a shot. I sought out Seve Ballesteros for his amazing short game and later Nick Price for the precision of his sharp, tight swing. Well before these golfers I’ve been privileged to watch and get to know George Knudson — known to friends as “the maestro” because he was such an accurate ball-striker.

Now I’d go a long ways to watch Woods. Answer me quick: If you knew Tiger was playing within, oh, three hours drive of where you live, and he was doing so tomorrow, how quickly would you change your plans to watch him? My guess is that if you’re enough of a golfer to read this column, then you would fill the car with gas and find him.

What would you find, though? You would find a golfer who not only hits the ball miles, but who does so with an elegant swing. You would find a young man who is maturing day-by-day into a champion on and off the course. You would find a golfer who could well break all records in the game. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a distinct possibility.

Jack Nicklaus hosts the Memorial Tournament. It’s his show, start to finish. Asked if he minded Woods overpowering courses and winning so often, and perhaps breaking his tremendous records, Nicklaus said that he’s all for it. He’s a fan of Woods.

If Nicklaus can be a fan, so can we all. So join Tiger’s Troops if you haven’t already. Go along for the ride. It’s a great time to be a golf fan, because Tiger Woods is in command. And just think: He’s only 24.