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Fear is no longer a factor

How Players are Standing up to Tiger by Dermot Gilleece

Posted Dec 06, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece


Only three play-off defeats and two of them against Irishmen ...   Tiger Woods is entitled to wonder if all that Emerald Isle hospitality is a lot of old guff, in the light of Sunday's set-back against Graeme McDowell.  Especially interesting is the fact that it has come almost exactly four years after defeat by Padraig Harrington in a play-off for the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan.

It will be remembered that only four months prior to that, Woods had delivered a superb display at the Royal Liverpool Club, Hoylake, in retaining the Open Championship.  I remember Harrington telling me that as he walked off the 17th green in Japan on the Sunday, he noticed a marked change in the body-language of his playing partner.  "I had clearly aroused his interest, making him a different animal altogether," was the Dubliner's unwittingly apposite assessment of a rival named Tiger.                        

Less than an hour later, through some extraordinary wedge play against a player who then seemed a permanent fixture at number one in the world, Harrington secured a sudden-death victory which was easily the most significant of his career up to that point.  It meant that unlike most of Woods' rivals, he would hold no fear of going head-to-head with the great one, even with a major title at stake.     

"When it was all over, I found myself remarking that Tiger really wants to be pushed, no matter what," said Harrington.  "After hitting a great chip to save par on the 17th, I could sense his excitement, his focus.  Sure he wanted to win, but he also wanted to be pushed.  He wanted the competition."

Which was reminiscent of a celebrated exchange during the Open Championship at Turnberry in 1977 when, in the course of a titanic battle, Tom Watson turned to Jack Nicklaus and remarked: "This is what it's all about, isn't it?"  To which the Bear replied: "You betcha."
But it painted a picture sharply different to events in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket, Thailand, in January 1998, when Woods swept from eight strokes back entering the final round, to overhaul Ernie Els and then beat him in a play-off.  Investing Woods with an air of invincibility, the turnaround sent shockwaves through the tournament scene, coming as it did, nine months after a 12-stroke victory in the US Masters.  And Harrington was there, in a share of eighth place.

The Phuket phenomenon had a particularly profound impact on Els as a major challenger.  And though Woods lost a play-off to Billy Mayfair in the Los Angeles Open a month later, rivals generally seemed to crumble before him. And he would remain unbeaten through a further eight in a row - until his Japan date with Harrington in November 2006. 

Prior to the Dunlop Phoenix, Tiger tests were routinely won tamely with pars. Against Harrington, however, there would be no soft touch for a player pursuing a 10th win of the year.  A par at the second tie hole didn't get the job done.  Just like last Sunday, when a par on the treacherous 18th at Thousand Oaks - the first play-off hole for the Chevron World Challenge - wasn't good enough after McDowell had birdied the hole for a third successive time. 

The Portrush player was diplomatically generous to Woods afterwards, saying how he imagined it was possible the Tiger mystique could soon return.  But McDowell then added pointedly:  "He's just got to do the talking with his golf clubs now, you know. I mean, he used to appear invincible. Of course he's made himself appear more human in the last 12 months. At the end of the day, we're all humans and we all make mistakes and we all hit bad golf shots."       

In the wake of his victory in Japan, Harrington said:  "I have now reached the stage as a player where I believe there's nobody I can't beat on a given day - and that includes Tiger."   Eight months later, Woods was tailed off in a share of 12th place when Harrington captured the Open Championship at Carnoustie.

One suspects that where McDowell was concerned, the Tiger mystique had gone some time before last Sunday.  Even though Woods was considered a serious challenger for the US Open entering the final round at Pebble Beach last June, McDowell never gave him a thought as he battled to become the first European winner of the title since Tony Jacklin in 1970.

Deference for Woods had been replaced by respect.  Fear was no longer a factor.  And the evidence was there for even the most ardent Tiger fans to see, during the climactic holes last Sunday.

- Dermot Gilleece

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