Tiger's Drive For Five

woods practice ahead of 2001 u.s. open golf
Tiger Woods has won four straight majors, and there's nothing to suggest this week will be any different.

He's flush from the tee, crisp with his irons and controlling the pace on the greens. He's the perfect package for the U.S. Open, the closest thing to perfection that golf has to offer.

Woods, the only player to hold all four major titles at the same time, tries to become the first to win five in a row when the Open begins Thursday at Southern Hills Country Club.

"Tiger would be the first one to admit that he has to play well to win," Nick Price said. "The question is, when he plays well, can anyone beat him? There are a few guys out there that can, but I would say this: You can probably count them on one hand."

The likely suspects are two-time Open winner Ernie Els, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, perhaps even Sergio Garcia.

In a Tiger-free world, Colin Montgomerie might be considered a contender. After all, he lost a three-way Open playoff in 1994 and was runner-up in '97.

Yet, when Monty was asked two weeks ago if he thought he was playing well enough to win the Open, he glared at the reporter before replying:

"Why? Is Tiger injured?"

Mobbed by fans.    (AP)SIZE>
No, Woods is fine. The only thing bothering him Wednesday was a mosquito bite, which caused him to wince and grab his upper back during a practice round.

"I had an itch. Right in the middle of my back, too, that one spot where you can't reach it," he said, stopping to demonstrate.

If anyone still needs proof of Woods' dominance, they need to look no further than Las Vegas, where people actually back their words with cash.

It's there that Woods is the biggest favorite ever to win a golf tournament — and people are still lining up to put money on him.

"How do you blame them? Every time you bet him, you cash a ticket," said Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Regent hotel-casino sports book.

In a sport where bettors once got 8-1 odds on the favorite, Woods is an unheard-of even-money pick. That means bettors have to put up $10 to win $10, while the same bet on Els at 20-1 would net $200.

The odds have shrunk during Woods' streak, which began with a 15-stroke victory at last year's Open. He was a 3-1 pick at Pebble Beach, but dropped to 3-2 for the Masters this year.

If Woods wins at Southern Hills, he'll go into the British Open at even shorter odds.

"He's transcended the way golf wagering is evolving," Sherman said. "What he's doing is simply amazing."

No longer can one say that even-par gives you a chance to win on the Open's challenging layout. Woods made a mockery of that logic by shooting 12 under a year ago, when no one else managed to go lower than 3 over.

Southern Hills is an American classic — bendng, tree-lined fairways and heavily contoured greens, a combination that requires players to think their way around in suffocating heat.

No matter what the layout, though, Woods is the man to beat.

"I think certain players, he plays with their minds," Lee Westwood said.

A year ago, Davis Love III was 11 strokes ahead of Woods after two rounds of the Byron Nelson Classic and said, "I don't know if he's ever far enough behind." Woods wound up missing the playoff by one stroke.

This was the advantage Jack Nicklaus had while he was winning 18 professional majors, the standard of greatness in golf and the number Woods now chases.

"He knew he was going to win, you knew he was going to win, and he knew that you knew he was going to win," Tom Weiskopf once said of Nicklaus.

While most of the attention is focused on Woods, the Open format provides plenty of intriguing story lines.

Bradley Klapprott is so obscure that his first AND last name are misspelled in the official players' guide. George Frake II will get to play at least two rounds on one of golf's biggest stages before returning to his job as a club pro in New Jersey. Tim Petrovic worked at Pizza Hut for 3@1/2 years, trying to scrape together enough money to play on weekends in small-time tournaments.

All three qualified for their first Open.

"I used to be scrubbing floors and washing pots and pans. Not too glamorous," Petrovic said. "But we made it through."

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