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Nashville Scene Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

Woods stands tall above his peers

By Randy Horick

JULY 31, 2000:  Our collective vocabulary by now has run short of words to describe Tiger Woods' dominance over the group that we misleadingly call (see what I mean?) his peers.

Woods has no peer anymore. There is no longer a debate, even among the competitors, about who is shooting for first place every week. (By Sunday, bookmakers in Britain would only accept wagers on who would finish second in Scotland.)

The only real question now up for discussion concerns Tiger Woods' place in golfing history.

Maybe this is one of those rare instances when a few statistics are more illuminating than a fairway full of flowery adjectives and tributes.

Here is what the record book says Tiger Woods has done.

Out of the most recent 23 tournaments he has entered, Woods has won 13. In capturing the British Open over the weekend and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month, Woods outdistanced the world's second-best golfer, David Duval, by a combined 25 strokes.

On the Old Course at St. Andrews, the game's holiest shrine, he was the only entrant in the Open to shoot four straight rounds in the 60s. During those four days, St. Andrews set 448 sand-filled traps in front of him. He somehow avoided every single one. He finished 19 strokes under par for the tournament.

On Sunday, Tiger became the youngest golfer ever to capture the modern version of the sport's fabled Grand Slam--victories at the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship--during his career.

Since the Masters began in 1934, only four other golfers have managed that feat at any age: Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, and Gene Sarazen. Missing from the list are Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson, and Lee Trevino.

It took Woods four years--the length of time he has been on the PGA tour--to win each Grand Slam event at least once. Nicklaus needed five.

Player required seven, and Hogan took eight. Sarazen made it in 14. Only five other golfers have ever won the U.S. and British Opens in the same year, and none since 1982. Woods is also the first golfer since Nicklaus, nearly three decades ago, to hold three major trophies at the same time. (He won the PGA Championship last year to go with his U.S. and British Open crowns.)

I have my own peculiar measure for assessing Tiger Woods, and I think it is as valid as any other.

I don't play golf; there are many faster, less expensive ways to pursue frustration. I do not possess a fan's interest in the sport.

But when the competition features Tiger Woods, golf suddenly becomes riveting. To see him play a course is to watch a master artist at the peak of his craft and power.

I watch him both for the present and for posterity. I want to be able to describe, years from now and with an old-timer's puff of pride, what it was like to see him make history at Augusta in 1997, and make a mockery of the field at Pebble Beach in 2000, and how the crowds in Scotland stormed the fairways on 18 to see him--just as I've heard old men boast of seeing Ty Cobb or Doak Walker or the great Ruth in his prime.

Such is the effect that Tiger Woods has on one who is otherwise passionless about golf that I want to call my daughter to see him play, too. "Watch this guy," I say. "You may never see another one like him."

For Better or Worse

Between 1991 and 1994, the Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls. In their first appearance, they lost 20-19 to the Giants when a field goal sailed wide as time expired. The next year, they lost 37-24 to the Redskins. In Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, they were crushed by the Cowboys, 52-17 and 30-13.

It was not until early this year, after the Titans lost to the Rams in Atlanta, that I came to appreciate the Bills' four straight Super Bowl failures as the greatest team achievement in the history of the NFL.

Think about it. Only one other team, the Dolphins of the early '70s, has appeared in as many as three consecutive Super Bowls. Sure, there have been repeat winners from one year to the next, but no one else has played in more than two championships in a row--not the Steelers, not the Cowboys, not the 49ers, Packers, or Broncos. Only the Bills have ever earned even the opportunity to lose four straight Big Ones.

There is an object lesson here for the Titans, who opened training camp last week amid as much anticipation in Nashville as might have been generated by a visit from the pope or Queen Elizabeth or, for that matter, travelers from Mars.

Not that such excitement is unwarranted or even possible to dampen, given that the Titans came within one foot of forcing the first-ever Super Bowl overtime last season, and that this season they might be even better. Unfortunately, in this league, even better is not always good enough. You can be better and finish worse.

Hindsight sometimes blurs rather than sharpens vision. Thus, in the wake of their team's march to Atlanta, fans can easily forget that reaching the Super Bowl was a highly iffy thing, even after the miraculous finish against Buffalo.

A turnover here, a bad break there, and the Tites would have been eating nine-layer dip in front of the TV with everyone else on Super Sunday. If their punt returner hadn't stepped a couple of centimeters out of bounds, the Colts might have gone to Atlanta. Despite eventually losing by a lopsided margin, even Jacksonville might still have won the AFC championship had they not surrendered the safety that made possible the kick return that broke open the game.

When you follow a team's progress to the Super Bowl, you begin to appreciate how extraordinarily difficult it is to make it back even once, to say nothing of four times. You have to be extremely good and a little lucky.

The Titans promise to be extremely good. Yet there is no shortage of questions to fret over.

Though they have upgraded the position, there will be two new linebackers at the heart of Tennessee's complicated defense. How will they respond?

How will they fare without Josh Evans to help anchor the defensive line?

Will the offense click right away under a new coordinator? What does it say about the downfield passing game that Tennessee is still seeking help at wide receiver?

Amid all these questions, there is also one troubling certainty: The Titans will sneak up on nobody this year (except perhaps the Jaguars, who remain trapped in a deep, dopey funk of denial). The Bills will have had nine months to prepare a suitable welcome for the Titans on Sept. 3. There will be a difficult trip to Washington. The Ravens are good enough to sweep Tennessee. Every opponent will find extra motivation in the chance to beat the AFC champs.

If the breaks fall their way, the Titans could again finish 13-3, maybe 14-2. But even if they're improved, they also could easily wind up 11-5 or 10-6.

In the latter event, Titans fans would discover something others around the league have long known: Football is the cruelest game of all. And they might appreciate even more how much of a winner a team must be to become a Super Bowl loser.

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