To be fair, Woods got plenty of applause, but it was a more muted reaction. Casual golf fans admire Woods, perhaps even revere him, but his steely demeanor on the course and his inaccessibility off it make it hard for them to get close to him. For one thing, while he seems pleasant enough when he's not inside the ropes, the man almost never displays anything other than a focused scowl during play. Has any great golfer -- hell, any great athlete -- ever looked so grim while doing his job? Throw in the machinelike efficiency with which he dispatches his foes, and the distance grows. He got one of his biggest ovations on Thursday after ducking into a portable toilet en route to the 15th tee, then emerging a minute later, as if by relieving himself he had revealed his humanity. "Are you guys clapping because I'm potty-trained?" Woods quipped.
Cheering for Woods in a major is like rooting for rain in a thunderstorm. On Thursday and Friday, in whipping through rounds of 67 and 68, Woods was the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal throwing down dunks on helpless centers. On the weekend Tiger wisely ground out rounds of 70 and 72; his play was akin to a dominant football team's protecting a lead by running the ball in the second half. Anytime anyone got too close, Woods answered. On Sunday, when birdies on 11 and 13 brought Mickelson to within two, Woods quickly killed the buzz by blistering a drive on the par-5 13th, then barely missing a 20-foot eagle putt before tapping in for a birdie.
As with pal Michael Jordan, perhaps his only American athletic peer, Woods overwhelms opponents with his talent. Of equal importance is his superior conditioning, an almost insufferable competitive drive and a vicious work ethic. At 8:40 p.m. on Saturday, well after his competitors had left the grounds, Woods wrapped up an hourlong session on the range. He cut through the darkness and walked upstairs to his locker, where he found a handwritten apology from Garcia, who, after shooting a 74 in relentless rain the previous day, had made some inflammatory comments. Referring to Woods, who had completed his Friday round before the weather was at its worst, Garcia said, "It always seems like there's one guy who's lucky when he needs to be." He also took a shot at the U.S. Golf Association, saying, "If Tiger would've been out there, the USGA would have stopped play."
Upon reading Garcia's note, Woods broke into a huge smile. Then a reporter asked Woods if he was having any fun playing this tournament. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I just love competing. The fans are great; you have no choice but to enjoy them. Really, this is great."
Yeah, great for you, the cynics in the Open field might have replied. Garcia was hardly the only player insinuating that fortune was smiling upon Woods at Deathpage. At 7,214 yards, the par-70 course was the longest in U.S. Open history, an edge for big hitters like Woods and Mickelson. On Friday the windy and rainy conditions left many struggling to clear the deep heather on holes 10 and 12, at 492 and 499 yards, respectively, the longest par-4s ever in an Open. That USGA officials refused to provide a rescue from the fescue by moving up the tees rankled many players. "If they keep doing this, they'll take the fun out of the game, because only a few guys can win," groused Nick Price, who shook off Friday's 75 and rallied to tie for eighth. "But maybe that's what the USGA wants." Later, asked if he felt the USGA is tailoring Open courses for Woods in particular, Price, who has won three majors, winked and said, "It should be obvious to you, too."