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TIGER'S GRAND QUEST Goal: Even before his record-setting Masters victory, Tiger Woods had set his sights on winning the Grand Slam, a feat not yet achieved in modern golf.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The story may someday become part of golf's lore. It could go down with 20-year-old Francis Ouimet sticking with a 10-year-old caddie and winning the 1913 U.S. Open. It could go down with 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus giving his fans one last blast from the past and winning the 1986 Masters.

It would be repeated long after Tiger Woods completes the cycle from child prodigy to living legend.

It is the story about a conversation between Woods, then a 21-year-old phenom in his first full season on the PGA Tour, and fellow pro and mentor Mark O'Meara as they traveled together to the 1997 Masters. The conversation was punctuated by a single question.

"Do you think anyone can win the Grand Slam?" Woods said.

"I don't see why you couldn't," O'Meara said.

History is waiting to unfold this week as the 97th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

Since Woods walked off the course at Augusta National Golf Club nearly two months ago, with a record 12-shot victory in the Masters and his place as the first American minority player to wear the green jacket, the thought of his winning the sport's other three major championships in a single year has gone from pure fantasy to a merely far-fetched notion.

It is still a long shot -- 1,000-1 according to the bookmakers in Las Vegas -- and something that others just as dominant in the past couldn't finish because of a quirk in the schedule, the quality of the competition or simply the enormity of the task. That it is even being discussed is testimony to Woods.

And Woods is not retreating from the discussion.

"I said it at the press conference in Augusta [after the Masters victory] that Phil Mickelson won four times last year, and all you have to do is win the right four," Woods said before last month's Byron Nelson Classic. "That's how realistic it is. That's how simple it is. You're playing against the best fields in the world. You're playing the most extreme conditions, and you need to be pretty lucky."

It has never been done in its current form and was done only once -- by the legendary amateur Bobby Jones in 1930 -- when the four majors were the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur. The closest anyone came in golf's modern era was Ben Hogan, who in 1953 won the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open but for a variety of reasons didn't compete in the PGA Championship.

"It's not impossible, but it's improbable," said Jack Nicklaus, who got halfway there in 1972 before losing by a shot in the British Open. "Can he [Woods] do it? Sure he can. And he's the only one who has a chance this year."

In truth, the notion of a Grand Slam wasn't even mentioned in golf much until Arnold Palmer won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960. Palmer broached the idea of a Grand Slam on a flight to Scotland for the British Open, with his agent, Mark McCormack.

"The most disappointing thing, I suppose, was the fact that I didn't win the British Open," Palmer said earlier this year. "I was so sad, if you talk about personal desires and thoughts that you never really talk about a lot. But to lose the British Open in the situation that I lost it was one of my strongest defeats."

Palmer, who wound up losing to Kel Nagle by a shot at St. Andrews, also came close in 1962. He beat Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald in an 18-hole playoff at the Masters, lost in an 18-hole playoff to Nicklaus in the Open at Oakmont, then won the British Open by six shots at Troon. He would win only one more major, the 1964 Masters.

"I felt like I had started something that was very possible to do," Palmer said of completing the Grand Slam. "I wanted to be the one to do it. And I didn't. Never will now. I'd like to see someone do it."

Nicklaus' bid officially ended at the 1972 British Open at Muirfield, when Lee Trevino chipped in three times during the final round, including one for par at the 18th hole, to win by a shot. But Nicklaus, who started the day six shots behind, believed that his chance ended the week before, when he pulled a muscle in his neck while practicing.

"I didn't tell anybody about it because I didn't want anyone to think I was making excuses in case I lost," Nicklaus said recently. "That was the pressure on me, because I knew I wasn't coming into the British Open in the best shape. That's the hardest thing about winning the Grand Slam, keeping up that level of play for four weeks spread out over a long period of time."

Woods is not playing as well as he was at the Masters. The week before Augusta, he shot a 59 on his home course in Florida. After the Masters, Woods took a month off but then won his first tournament back, and said he had just a "C-plus" game during that two-shot victory at the Byron Nelson Classic.

In his past two tournaments, he has shown only flashes of the game he had at the Masters. He played well for two rounds at the Colonial tournament, was tied for the lead with five holes to play on Sunday, but his second double bogey of the round did him in on the 17th hole and he dropped into a tie for fourth. He barely made the cut at the rain-shortened Memorial Tournament, then finished a distant 67th.

Asked before the Memorial to compare the state of his game to the one he had in Augusta, Woods said: "It's not as good as it was at Augusta; that's for sure. But mentally I'm about the same. I'm putting just as good. My chipping is probably better, but my swing is not as good as Augusta because you get into lulls and I'm in that lull right now."

History is also against Woods this week. Only four players have ** won the Open after winning the Masters: Craig Wood in 1941, Hogan in 1951 and 1953, Palmer and Nicklaus. Hogan's bid in 1953 ended because the PGA was played the week after the British Open.

It was as much the condition of Hogan's legs as it was the logistics of cross-Atlantic travel. After a near-fatal car accident in 1949, Hogan stopped playing the PGA for several years because its match-play format required as many as 144 holes of competition for those who advance to the final.

lTC What favors Woods this year are the courses on which the four majors are being played. With virtually no rough at Augusta, Woods could drive the ball as far as he wanted and play almost worry-free about his accuracy. Congressional and Winged Foot [for the PGA] are long courses that require high-ball hitters. Royal Troon for next month's British Open could depend as much on the weather conditions as on Woods.

"Congressional is a very, very good course for him," Nicklaus said. "I don't know whether Troon is or not. I think Troon's a hard golf course because there are so many factors. Troon can be hard [on the fairways and greens], Troon can be soft. When it's hard, Troon is a really difficult course to manage a golf game. And Winged Foot's a strange golf course. It's produced some strange winners."

Said Tom Watson, the 1982 U.S. Open champion and five-time British Open winner: "If you look at the golf courses, what they require and whether they fit Tiger's strength, Congressional and Winged Foot are long, tough courses where his length will be a huge advantage if he's hitting it straight. Troon is another story because the front nine takes length out of the equation."

Watson said that the advantage Woods will have at Congressional will come on the approach shots on the long par-4s, many of them with elevated greens. "With the clubs he'll be using compared with everyone else, he'll be able to maneuver the ball and hold his shots on the greens," Watson said.

Said Davis Love III, whose length and touch should make him a legitimate contender at Congressional: "The short game ultimately ends up being the deciding factor at a major. At the Masters, it's a lot of long birdie putts. At the Open, it's a lot of par-saving putts. The guys who make the five-, six-, seven-footers for par usually have a chance."

The obstacles in front of Woods are not simply related to the mechanics of his swing. There are the outside factors. Though Woods is more poised and seemingly unbothered than any 21-year-old should rightly be, the constant swarm of attention could wear him out by the time he gets to the Open. It seemed to be catching up with him the past couple of weeks.

"My personal opinion is that I hope he doesn't think too much about it," said 84-year-old legend Byron Nelson, who has compared Woods' dominance to fellow legends named Jones and Nicklaus. "But he's good enough to win it."

Nelson was, too, but his pursuit of the Grand Slam was hindered mostly by World War II. In 1945, Nelson won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row in one stretch. But because of the war, the PGA was the only major held that year. Nelson stopped playing regularly the next year to spend more time with his family.

"You need to build your game up for the majors," said Nelson, who won the Open once, the Masters twice and the PGA twice. "It's like a trainer getting horses ready for the Triple Crown races. The one player who got himself up for the majors at the right time was Jack Nicklaus. The Grand Slam would be a wonderful thing. If anybody does it now, it would be more sensational than when Jones won it."

It would be the biggest story in golf since, well, Woods' third consecutive U.S. Amateur championship last summer. But as much as the game's living legends would like to see him do it, most of his peers would rather see Tigermania die a little. They are getting a bit tired of the questions from the media, of the hysteria from the fans, of the prospect of not winning themselves.

Phil Mickelson, who was considered the game's "Bear Apparent" before Woods came along, is honest when the subject of a possible Grand Slam is raised. Though complimentary of Woods -- "Tiger has won on different types of courses; he seems to possess all the shots," he said -- Mickelson recalls a feeling similar to playing on the last U.S. Ryder Cup team.

"It wasn't any fun being part of a losing team," Mickelson said. "It would not be fun being part of the same field if one guy were to win all four majors."

History is about to unfold for a sport and a player of incalculable talent.

A player named Tiger Woods.

Pub Date: 6/08/97

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