Woods Eyes Niklaus Mark at PGA

Thursday, August 15, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. -- The 84th PGA Championship lost some of its luster about a month ago, when Tiger Woods shot an 81 on a wet and windy Saturday at the British Open.

That round ended Woods' chance for a Grand Slam this calendar year and took with it much of the worldwide buzz for the final major championship of 2002.

Yet, for the 156 players expected to tee off starting this morning at Hazeltine National Golf Club in the Minneapolis suburbs, every man in the field has plenty to play for, including Woods, the runaway No. 1 player in the world aiming to win his ninth major title, and eighth in his last 13 major starts.

Woods, in his seventh season as a professional, is a goal-setter, whether it be trophies or target scores. His incentive this week will be to set yet another record, and get halfway to the standard he covets the most -- his idol Jack Nicklaus' 18 major championship titles, won over a 28-year span.

The 26-year-old already has won three majors in a season in 2000, tying Ben Hogan's record. No player has won three in a season twice. Woods also can join Hogan and Gary Player in a tie for third on the career major winner list at nine. Only Walter Hagen (11) and Nicklaus have won more.

In 1953, Hogan won the Masters, U.S. and British Opens but didn't play in the PGA because qualifying for the tournament, which was then match play, conflicted with his trip to Europe for the British Open.

Woods won the Masters and the U.S. Open this year and could be the first to prevail in all three majors contested in the United States.

As usual, Woods insisted he has no other incentive except to win. First place will pay $986,000 out of a $5.5 million purse, with the champion also taking home the Wanamaker Trophy.

"I take the same focus, the same approach to each and every major championship," he said, "and that is to peak and get my game mentally and physically ready for this one week. I try to do it four times a year, and so far, I've done it two times -- two and three-quarter times."

The missing quarter came at Muirfield in the British Open on a day of sideways, pelting rain, winds gusting to 35 miles an hour and a wind chill of 34 degrees. That's the day Woods posted 81, his worst round as a pro, then followed it with a nice-weather 65 on Sunday that eased a little of the previous day's pain.

Woods finished that tournament at even-par 284, six shots out of the playoff won by Ernie Els. Woods insists he no longer thinks about his disastrous third round, despite the fact that a 5-over 75 would have gotten him in the playoff.

"I just had a time when the conditions were tough and I didn't hit the ball particularly well, and that kind of added to it," Woods said. "That's one of those things where you just chalk it up and say, 'You know what, that's just a tough day for everybody.' We all understand. That's part of playing the Open championship. It can happen, and it has happened, and it will happen again."

It happened that Saturday for Els, who weathered the storm in Scotland for a 72 he said felt more like a 66 or 67. Els' victory was his third in a major and first since winning the '97 U.S. Open at Congressional in Washington. If he can win here this week on a 7,360-yard course pocked with 98 bunkers, many guarding small greens, and featuring a 636-yard No. 3, one could even make a case for the South African as player of the year.

"I had not even thought about that," said Els, who has four worldwide victories this season. "Obviously, you've got to look at Tiger. He's won two majors and two other tournaments, so he's probably going to get it."

Els has been in a far better frame of mind this week than during the practice rounds at Muirfield, when his game was not especially sharp and he admitted he occasionally had no idea where his ball might go. That's not been the case this week, and he sounded like a man confident in his skills and his ability to contend for a fourth major title.

"It's only been three weeks since the British Open," Els said. "Obviously, my confidence is pretty high at the moment. I'd like to keep it there. I guess I'll be going through highs and lows during my career. I think as a whole, I'm a different player than I was a year ago. I think the package is a little bit better than it used to be."

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