Sunday, April 13, 2008

No Grand Slam for Tiger in 2008

One of the greatest testaments to Tiger Woods' greatness is that a second place finish in the Masters is considered to be a disappointment for him--not that he would disagree at all with that perception or resent the added pressure that it places on him. I remember one time when racing legend Mario Andretti finished second at the Indy 500, a track where he suffered more than his share of bad breaks. Someone asked him what it felt like to do well there in light of his history at the event and the 1969 Indy 500 champion replied with disgust that second place is just "first loser." Woods would certainly understand and echo that sentiment. As the four-time champion who has now finished second two years in a row put it, he did not come to the Masters with the idea of settling for anything less winning the tournament.

Woods never got his putting game going in this year's Masters but he is so talented that he finished second anyway, three strokes behind Trevor Immelman. Woods had been on such a roll recently that he did not discourage talk that he could become the first player to win all four of golf's Grand Slam events in one calendar year. After all, he captured the "Tiger Slam" by winning the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship in 2000 and then capturing the 2001 Masters. Woods will be much more reticent about openly speaking about such things in the future, telling reporters after the Masters, "I learned my lesson there with the press. I'm not going to say anything."

Winning one Grand Slam event would be the highlight of most golfers' careers and only 13 players have won at least six of them, a list topped by Jack Nicklaus' 18 titles. Remarkably, Nicklaus also finished second a record 19 times. Woods is second on the career list with 13 Grand Slam wins and he now has five second place finishes. I think that Woods will eventually eclipse Nicklaus' 18 titles but I don't expect him to make much of a run at the 19 second place finishes. The reason I say that is that when Woods has his "A" game--as he likes to call it--he generally leads from start to finish (or comes pretty close to doing that). Every time he has won a Grand Slam event he was leading or tied for the lead going into the last round. The flip side of that, of course, is that he has never come from behind after 54 holes to win a major title. Some commentators act like this is some kind of hole in Woods' resume but I disagree. ran a graphic detailing Woods' final round performances when he did not hold the lead after 54 holes and what I immediately noticed is that in most of those cases he trailed by a significant number of strokes and in virtually every instance he gained ground in the final 18 holes. What that tells me is that in those events he did not have his "A" game--that is why he was out of contention in the first place--but he is so mentally tough and so focused that he moved up in the standings and obtained the best finish that he could under those circumstances. It is much more significant that he has never lost after holding the lead after 54 holes in a Grand Slam; that tells you that when he has his "A" game he is unaffected by pressure and he always seals the deal. This is why I believe that Woods will not rack up a lot of second place finishes; when he has his "A" game he wins tournaments with ruthless precision and when he does not have his "A" game he usually is too far back to move into second place. I am not taking a shot at Nicklaus for having so many second place finishes; that is truly remarkable and it may be an indication that he was battling against a more talent rich field of competitors than Woods is. All I'm saying is that based on Woods' track record I would not expect that finishing second will ever become a trend for him.

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