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Grand Slam in sight for Tiger Woods

The next stop on Tiger Woods's record-breaking run into history takes him to the home of golf.

Woods will be an even bigger favorite next month in the British Open at St. Andrews, where he will try to complete the career Grand Slam in only his fourth year of professional golf, one fewer than it took Jack Nicklaus.

That should be the least of anyone's worries.

After his historic performance at Pebble Beach, where he won the 100th U.S. Open by shattering records set more than 100 years ago, Woods was concerned more with how much he can improve than how much he already has accomplished.

"We all play golf, we all have a bug,'' Woods said. "We're all trying to get better somehow. I'm going to continue to work on my whole game.''

The record will reflect that Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second in the U.S. Open. It should also carry a footnote to explain that the 15-stroke margin is not a typo.

Only four times has a player won a major championship by at least 12 strokes -- Old Tom Morris in 1862, Young Tom Morris in 1870, and Woods twice in the last three years.

And remember, he is a work in progress.

"What do we have to do to get to him? Hit everything you can, and then hope for the best,'' Els said. "Who knows what he's going to do from here?''

Woods tied the U.S. Open scoring record of 272, set at par-70 Baltusrol by Nicklaus in 1980 and Lee Janzen in 1993. Woods shattered the record in relation to par, 12 under, in a tournament where no one else came close to matching par.

That sums up Woods. Right now, no one is close.

And while Woods goes after the career Grand Slam, everyone else must be wondering how many scraps he will leave for them.

Els won his second U.S. Open title in 1997 when he was 27. This week must have aged him significantly.

"You want those four. That's my goal in life, to win four of them, at least once,'' Els said. "But with Tiger Woods to contend with, I've got a pretty tough job ahead of me for the next 10 years at least.''

What does that mean for everyone else?

They insist Woods is good for the game because he has raised the sport to unprecedented levels of popularity. Television ratings are soaring, and as a result, so is the prize money from a lucrative TV contract up for renewal next year.

What that does for their psyche is another matter.

"It's kind of like Texas in the old Southwest Conference," said former Longhorn Tom Kite. "You knew who was going to win before the game. It's certainly fun when you're pulling for Texas, but it's not real exciting for everybody else.''

Even with a 15-stroke victory, which broke the record for largest winning margin in a major set by Old Tom Morris in the 1862 British Open, Woods managed to provide a few thrills.

He birdied four of the first five holes on the back nine at Pebble Beach and twice saved par, once with a 15-footer on No. 16 and by nearly holing a bunker shot from the 17th. And along the way, he made more putts that mattered than anyone else.

"When he's putting the way he was this week, he's totally unbeatable,'' John Huston said.

Woods was so true with the putter than he never made worse than par over his first 22 holes and his last 26.

"Whoever beats him has to play their best,'' Fred Couples said.

The victory was similar to three years ago at Augusta National, when Woods became the youngest Masters champion by finishing a record 12 strokes ahead of the field.

Back then, Woods also talked about improving. To show how serious he was, Woods slowly revamped his entire swing and raised his game to a level of dominance not seen in more than 50 years.

He has won 14 of his last 25 tournaments worldwide dating to last May, when all the swing changes finally felt comfortable. In five majors during that same stretch, he has won twice and finished no worse than a tie for seventh.

How long can he keep this up?

"It's not necessarily keeping your competitive fire,'' Woods said. "It's just sometimes you're going to go through streaks where you're not going to play well. Hopefully, you can get through those periods of not playing well quickly.''

That hasn't been a problem. He has finished outside the top 10 just twice in his last 26 tournaments. When he's on his game, the question is not whether Woods will win, but by how many. Just two weeks ago, he won by five strokes over Els and Leonard at the Memorial.

Next up is the Western Open, a tournament he has won two of the past three years, then a journey to the Old Course at St. Andrews, where more history awaits.

Els has finished runner-up to Woods five times, more than anybody, but still relishes the challenge of meeting him again.

"I know St. Andrews pretty well, like Tiger knows this place,'' he said before departing Pebble Beach. "But I'll have to play out of my mind.''

 

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