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Woods edging nearer to historic mark

Woods edging nearer to historic mark

On the eve of the 1996 Masters, Jack Nicklaus walked in from a practice round with Arnold Palmer and 20-year-old Tiger Woods and sized up the future of golf.

He almost got laughed out of the room.

Combine his six green jackets and Palmer's four, Nicklaus said, "and this kid should win more than that."

Imagine the reaction if Nicklaus had said Woods might one day make a run at Byron Nelson's 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories, a record set in 1945.

Nicklaus never won more than three in a row. Same with Palmer. No one since 1953 had ever won more than four straight PGA Tour events.

Until now.

Three weeks after a thrilling playoff at the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii for his fifth straight victory, Woods returns to the PGA Tour on Thursday in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where a win would match Ben Hogan for the second-longest streak ever.

True, he isn't even halfway home to Nelson's mark, the most untouchable record in golf. But after the way Woods has dominated his sport the past nine months, nothing seems impossible.

"He has made winning a habit," said Ernie Els, who has been on the short end twice during Woods's streak.

Since his victory in the Memorial Tournament the first weekend in June, Woods has won eight of his last 11 PGA Tour events. In this stretch, only once has he finished worse than seventh -- a tie for 37th in the Sprint International, the week after he won the PGA Championship for his second major.

"What I have a hard time believing is what a high level he has played at," Phil Mickelson said. "Normally, of all the guys in the field, a couple will get hot and go low. And it's been Tiger, every single week."

The list of victims is impressive -- Mickelson, Els, Davis Love III, and European Ryder Cup player Miguel Angel Jimenez, none ranked lower than No. 21 in the world. The venues have ranged from resort courses in Hawaii and Disney World to tree-lined tests like Firestone and Valderrama.

The one constant?

Woods, his smile as radiant as ever, his game never better, holding up another trophy.

"His ability to make it happen when it has to happen is consistent," Nicklaus said. "That's what makes champions. I marvel watching him play."

What makes his streak so amazing is the incredibly deep pool of talent these days. His victories are coming against the best golf has to offer:

    • The NEC Invitational, for Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup players.

    • The Tour Championship, with the top 29 players on the money list.

    • The American Express Championship, featuring the top 50 players in the world rankings and the leading money winners from the five major tours around the world.

    • The Mercedes Championships, reserved for PGA Tour winners in 1999.

The other victory was the National Car Rental Classic, where Woods first beat Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion.

Asked whether a record that has stood for 55 years was in jeopardy, Nelson wasn't sure.

"I think it's going to be difficult," he said. "But if someone could get as hot as I did, they could win that many."

As far as Woods is concerned, his winning streak is at one -- the Mercedes Championships. Woods measures himself year by year, and last year is over. He says the streak was not weighing on him during his eagle-birdie-birdie finish to beat Els at Kapalua, and it won't be when he plays Pebble Beach.

"It's more important to you guys, something to write about, than it is to me," Woods said. "It really isn't that important to keep a string going, because the string is over. This is a whole new year. I need a fresh start."

Jackie Burke Jr., who won four straight PGA Tour events in 1952, is among those who believe a streak should only count in the same season.

Then again, the landscape of golf is entirely different now. Only seven weeks separated the final PGA Tour event in 1999 and the first tournament of 2000. When Nelson won 11 in a row in 1945, there was an 11-week break between his fifth victory in April and his sixth straight win in June.

And while Woods's streak involves only the PGA Tour, he did play the Johnnie Walker Classic -- an official European tour event -- in Taiwan the week after the American Express and finished sixth.

But the count will go on at Pebble Beach, and the hype -- something Nelson never experienced in 1945 -- will continue to build.

At 24, Woods has become the most celebrated athlete since Michael Jordan. He rarely plays anywhere without a dozen cameras jostling for position.

"He is a wonderful, wonderful player," David Duval said. "But I think the thing that amazes me the most about him is that he plays as well as he does with all that other stuff he has to do, with all his other burdens.

"I'm not sure I could do that. I'm not sure anybody else could."

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