Masters Anticipation

Friday, March 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -Tiger Woods keeps the trophies from his four major championships on a shelf over his fireplace. Only one of them, a sterling replica of the Augusta National clubhouse that he won in 1997, has been around long enough to collect dust.

``Put another one on there, it looks pretty good,'' Woods said.

It would look simply grand.

Never before has the Masters held so much anticipation, or had such an overwhelming favorite. It is considered the first leg of golf's Grand Slam, but it represents the final piece for Woods, who again seems to be carving his own trail into history.

It started in June with his 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open, the largest margin in the 140-year history of the majors. He won the British Open at St. Andrews in 19-under 269, the lowest score in relation to par ever at a major. With another record score, 270, he won the PGA Championship in a playoff to become only the second man to win three straight professional majors.

One more makes him the first player in history to hold all four majors at the same time. All that remains is to win the Masters, where he won by 12 strokes with a record score in 1997, although he hasn't seriously contended on the back nine Sunday since then.

``It's special any time you play Augusta,'' Woods said. ``Right now, it has a little more importance because of what's involved.''

Coming off back-to-back victories, the last one against the toughest field in golf at The Players Championship, Woods is on top of his game and on the verge of a feat that would rank among the greatest in sports, if only because it has never been done.

``No one else is ever going to do it, not in the next 100 years,'' Rocco Mediate said.

The last time there was this much buzz over a golf tournament was in 1930. Bobby Jones already had won the U.S. Open, British Open and British Amateur when he arrived at Merion Cricket Club for the U.S. Amateur.

He walloped Eugene Homans in the finals, 8 and 7 to complete what writer George Trevor described as the ``Impregnable Quadrilateral.''

It later became known as the Grand Slam, and Jones accomplished it in a calendar year. Whether it will count the same for Woods over two seasons is for others to argue.

``It would be pretty special, whatever it is,'' Jack Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus had a chance to hold all four majors at the same time because of a quirk in the scheduling. He won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1972, and had won the PGA Championship in 1971 when it was played in February.

He went to the British Open, the pressure building as he pursued a calendar Grand Slam, and finished second by a single stroke.

``That's part of the deal,'' Nicklaus said of the intense scrutiny. ``I always liked that.''

So does Woods.

The bigger the stage, the greater he performs. He completed the career Grand Slam last year at two of golf's most famous venues, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. The focus will never be greater than when the Masters starts Thursday at Augusta National.

``I think the word 'pressure' and Tiger go hand in hand,'' Colin Montgomerie said. ``I don't think pressure affects that man at all. I think he just thrives on it and will be doing that at the Masters. Obviously, it's the one score that we are all anxious to see.''

What better place to search for an unthinkable feat than Augusta, where fate has seemingly played a role in so many victories.

Is Woods destined to win? He'd rather rely on preparation and skill, a combination that has carried him to 26 tour victories in just 97 starts, five of them majors.

``If destiny was on my side, they might as well hand me the trophy,'' Woods said. ``You can't think that way, because then you forget what you need to do, and that's hit the golf shots. It's just like I said at the British Open. It really doesn't matter if I have a chance to complete the Grand Slam. What's really important is winning this tournament, and that completes the slam.''

Standing in his way are a group of players who have raised their games to try to catch Woods.

Phil Mickelson has come the closest in the past year, coming from behind to beat him in the Tour Championship and winning at Torrey Pines with Woods missing out on the playoff. Mickelson is aware of what is at stake for Woods, which would make his first major that much sweeter.

``A few years ago, nobody thought it was possible,'' Mickelson said of Woods' bid for four straight majors. ``Now, the odds on him doing it are extremely good. It's a pretty exciting time. I feel very fortunate to be one of only 80 people in the world that is going to try to not let that happen.''

Another is Vijay Singh, the defending champion who has not finished worse than fourth in his last six tournaments and comes to Augusta knowing _ not just hoping _ he can win.

``I want to put the jacket on myself,'' said Singh, trying to become the first repeat winner since Nick Faldo in 1990.

The most serious challenge for Woods might come from the game itself.

A year ago, Woods had won or finished second in 10 out of 11 tournaments when he arrived at Augusta. One bad lie in the bunker led to a double bogey. One gust of wind led to a triple bogey. He never recovered from a first-round 75.

Despite all the preparations, despite all his talent, even Woods is at the mercy of golf's fickle nature.

``Sometimes, you get the bad breaks at the most inopportune times,'' he said. ``Sometimes, you wake up one day and you're out of it.''

Odds are, he will be there on Sunday, chasing history through Amen Corner like others before him, hopeful of winning a prize that Arnold Palmer created and Nicklaus chased, but one that no one has ever attained.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was asked if he thought he would see the day that one his players had a chance to win four straight majors.

``Before Tiger came along? No,'' Finchem said. ``When he won the Masters in '97, I knew he was going to win a bunch of golf tournaments. But winning four majors in a row? I didn't expect to see it. I didn't expect to see a lot of things he's done.

``And I have no idea what he'll do next.''