Tiger returns under the eye of Lord Byron
Wednesday, May 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Byron Nelson played with Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, was born in the same year as Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, and in retirement watched everyone from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson.
When asked who was the best he ever saw, the 90-year-old Nelson didn't hesitate.
They first met at a golf clinic in Los Angeles when Woods was 15. Nelson gave Woods a sponsor's exemption to his tournament in 1993, when Woods was still in high school. Woods won the Nelson Classic in 1997, right after his record-setting Masters victory, the first of three green jackets.
``I never saw a player - at the age of 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 - that played as well at that age as he did,'' Nelson said. ``Now, whether or not he's going to beat Nicklaus' majors record (of 18 titles), nobody knows. But I will tell you he's working on it. He has a great desire to accomplish things and I think he's doing a remarkable job at it.
``I love to watch him play.''
Everyone gets to watch Woods this week for the first time since he won the Masters, where he easily held off five of the six players behind him in the world ranking over the final 18 holes at Augusta National.
Woods traditionally takes one of his longest breaks of the year after the Masters. He returns to a dlrs 4.8 million tournament that boasts eight of the top 10 players in the world, the exceptions being European tour members Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington.
``It's always one I have enjoyed playing,'' Woods said. ``Mr. Nelson has always been extremely nice to me. We've had numerous conversations, whether it's just chilling out and talking, or he wants to give some advice. Whatever it was, it's like he seems to have bent over backward to do that. He does that with a lot of people.''
One of these days, the PGA Tour record for consecutive cuts will come up in conversation. Nelson holds the record of 113 in a row over eight years in the 1940s, during which he never finished worse than a tie for 17th.
Woods is at 86, tied with Hale Irwin for third best.
``No telling when he is ever going to miss the cut,'' Nelson said. ``When he does, that's one record that I think mine would be better than his.''
Woods had one close call this year in San Diego, making a birdie on the last hole just to qualify for the weekend. He wound up in a tie for fifth, just three strokes behind the leaders. Then again, making the cut has never been his goal.
He put the clubs up for two weeks after winning the Masters and spent his time with corporate obligations, his Tiger Jam concert in Las Vegas and laying low.
``I wish I had another week or two off,'' Woods said. ``For some reason, it seems to be going by faster and faster nowadays.''
He said he hit the ball well during his pro-am round, ``not bad for a Wednesday,'' but will be put to the test when the tournament starts Thursday on Cottonwood Valley and the TPC at Las Colinas, two courses usually accompanied by hot blasts of wind.
Woods is never sure what to expect.
``You can play all you want at home, but it's a different type of playing, trying to get into a competitive atmosphere where adrenaline is flowing a little bit and your distances are going to be just a little bit different,'' he said.
The Byron Nelson Classic, sponsored by Verizon, starts a stretch of at least three straight tournaments for Woods. He goes to Germany next week to defend his title, then to the Memorial, where he will try to win for the fourth straight year. The Kemper Open the following week has not been ruled out.
They all lead to the U.S. Open at Bethpage, the second leg in the Grand Slam.
Woods has never seen the Black Course, which is one reason he says his preparations for the U.S. Open haven't started.
``I really haven't done anything for the U.S. Open because I haven't seen what kind of golf course I'm going to be playing,'' he said.
The only thing this week that can even remotely remind him of a major is the caliber of players in the field _ past champions like Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, major winners like David Toms, David Duval and Vijay Singh.
Asked whom he would favor this week besides himself, Woods said anybody, and last year certainly bore that out. Robert Damron won a four-hole playoff over Scott Verplank.
``When you get the top players in the world, it doesn't always mean that we're all going to be down the stretch with a chance to win,'' Woods said. ``Starting out the week, it should get your juices flowing. You've just got to go out and play your own game. They're going to do the same thing, not really worry about who's playing.''