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Golf in need of challenger to Tiger Woods

No one ever made such a mockery of par in the U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods is that good.

He also became the first player to win a major championship by 15 strokes.

Let's hope everyone else is not that bad.

Woods's awesome performance at Pebble Beach raised a question that has been nagging at the game ever since he started an incredible run of 14 victories in his last 25 tournaments, two of those major championships.

Is Tiger good for the game?

That depends on what his margin of victory in the U.S. Open represents.

If he was 15 strokes better than everyone else on talent alone, golf will blossom the way it did when Arnold Palmer hitched his pants and took the game to new levels of popularity. Woods is exciting to watch, and the fact he still is 10 years from his prime makes it tantalizing to speculate whether he indeed will become the best ever.

The fear is that what separates Woods from the rest has more to do with desire.

"That hunger for winning a major championship ... it's there every week,'' Ernie Els said. "To be honest with you, I don't feel like that every week when I'm playing. He's just different. Whether it's a regular tournament or a major, he's going to be 110 percent to win and beat the field. And I'm not sure if there's a lot of players like that out there.''

Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second at Pebble Beach. A year ago at Pinehurst, 15 strokes behind the champion would have earned them a tie for 30th.

"I'm kind of embarrassed, finishing 15 shots behind,'' Els said.

He should be.

So should Phil Mickelson and David Duval, who couldn't even break par over four rounds on a course where Woods did it three times. So should Hal Sutton, who picked the wrong occasion to shoot his worst score ever in a U.S. Open, 83 in the third round. So should Davis Love III and Jesper Parnevik, who didn't even make it to the third round.

If this U.S. Open was a watershed for Woods, it should serve as a wake-up call for everyone else.

Every sport needs a dominant player. To have someone like Woods, a worldwide celebrity along the lines of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, is a bonus.

What golf needs to sustain its rising interest is for someone -- anyone -- to challenge him.

Woods has gone through so-called rivals as often as Vijay Singh changes putters -- Mickelson, Els, Duval, Sergio Garcia, back to Els and Mickelson, even Sutton. Woods has always downplayed talk of a rivalry, claiming there were too many good players.

Perhaps he was merely being polite.

Tom Kite compared the drama of Woods destroying the field to when the Texas Longhorns used to dominate the Southwest Conference.

"You knew who was going to win before the game,'' he said. "It's certainly fun when you're pulling for Texas, but it's not real exciting for everybody else.''

Jimmy Connors didn't make tennis fun to watch until John McEnroe showed up. Larry Holmes was the dominant heavyweight during some of boxing's dullest years because his stiffest competition came from Gerry Cooney.

Golf has so much potential, and is getting so little response.

"Right now, when he's on his game, I don't see anyone really challenging him, depending on the golf course,'' Nick Price said. "There are a lot of great players out there who aren't getting any credit because Tiger is taking it all.''

There's a reason Woods is taking all the hardware, and it's not just because of his length, shotmaking, short game and putting, all of which are superb.

After he won The Masters by 12 strokes, Woods scrapped his swing and built one that would allow him to contend every week. After winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, he talked about his desire to get better.

Woods is not only good. He's hungry.

Two days before the U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus was asked whether it was more difficult today to win, as he did, 18 majors -- the one record that drives Woods.

"It depends a lot on your competition,'' Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus lost more than he won -- a record 19 runner-ups in the majors -- thanks to players like Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson.

"They knew how to win majors, which made it harder to win,'' Nicklaus said. "Right now, we don't have many guys that have won many majors.''

Then, he wondered aloud whether more players should be at the top of their game to challenge Woods.

"Either that,'' Nicklaus said, "or he's so far above them that he's making everybody else not look very good.''


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