Is There A Challenger ?

By Peter Aviles
Updated: August 24, 2006

NEW JERSEY—In July, of 2002, I wrote a piece titled “Is there a Challenger Out There?” in response to Tiger’s pursuit of the grand slam. At that time, he was preparing for the British Open and it seemed that no one would/could beat him. History tells us that the grand slam was not to be as that year. The weather contributed mightily to a career worst 81 in the third round to put him out of contention. To his credit, he followed up that performance with a 65 to finish in a tie for 28th place. Let’s fast forward to 2006, where during this four year span we’ve followed the many changes including swing changes, marriage, and death among many others and yet the one constant is the question “Is there a challenger?” If his dominant play of late does not convince you that he is at such a high level superior to that of the other golfers, I don’t know what can convince you. The other professionals are not really competing against him as much as they are among themselves for second place. His Achilles heel is becoming his strength as he is hitting fairways and greens-in-regulation at a remarkable pace. His iron play and putting of late is absolutely brilliant. He is so accurate off the tee and from the fairway it seems as though the clubs have laser rangefinders built in them.

Jack Nicklaus, whose records Tiger is chasing, questioned the competitiveness of the other players back in 2002. At that time, he said “Tiger has them all buffaloed,” in essence making it too easy for Tiger. Though he went on to say that that someone can beat Tiger, he questioned if they worked as hard or prepare as much as Tiger. Strong words from Jack and in 2002, Ernie Els took umbrage with Jack’s statements saying “For them to criticize us because one guy is dominating…is unfair. Well, here we are and the same things are being said. In Ernie’s defense, he is recovering from an injury, but truth be told, I don’t think it makes a difference. The way that Tiger has played since missing the cut at the U.S. Open this year is in my estimation, the best he has ever played which is very scary. It may not be as exciting because, he is not being as creative or scrambling as much as he has in the past, but he is now dominating, and everyone knows it. When you are hitting fairways and greens in regulation the game can be a blissful joy.

What I find most surprising are the multitude of voices chagrining the other golfers for their paltry efforts. Tom Watson, for instance has said some less than complimentary things about Phil in praising Tiger. “He used his head. He played the golf course the way you’re supposed to…Phil Mickelson came over here for two weeks and he couldn’t hit it straight enough. Tiger hit it straight with the irons.” Ouch! That is about as stinging a comment you will hear from a fellow golfer like Tom Watson though he was not alone. Chris DiMarco simply says “He’s the best.” “He’s the complete package,” said 2006 U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy. Even the television coverage openly question Phil’s performance.

The one voice that appears to be on the mute button is Vijay’s. We have not heard from him either verbally or through his play. Now, we know that he won the Barclay’s Classic leading up to the U.S. Open where he finished in a tie for sixth place with five others while Tiger missed his first cut in a major. However, since the U.S. Open, Vijay has missed the cut at the British Open, and missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Adding insult to injury, Vijay slipped to fourth place in the World Golf Rankings behind Jim Furyk with the release of the August 13th rankings.

Once again, is the question “Is there a challenger?” Halfway to the Tiger slam, you have to wonder if we are witnessing a stretch where this time; we will not only see the Tiger slam, but the grand slam. Unless someone steps forward and provides an answer, the question will continuously be asked “Is there a challenger?”