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Phil and Tiger have something new in common, but they also remain more different than ever

Tiger Woods
Thomas Lovelock / Sports Illustrated
With each passing major, the pressure mounts on Tiger Woods in his pursuit of Jack's record.

In the meantime, those of us who watch and care spin our little theories about this and that, like why he hasn't won a major in more than five years. Steve Williams said the other day that Tiger's play is simply not as aggressive as it once was. This was a most interesting comment because Tiger, in his 2000-02 prime, was both profoundly aggressive and conservative. He played exactly the shot that the situation called for. Now, on weekends at the majors, he errs on the side of caution. That's how it seems to Williams.

Tiger's greatness as a professional is rooted in his extraordinary amateur career, during which he won three consecutive national junior titles followed by three consecutive U.S. Amateurs. Over those six years, he won 36 consecutive matches. (Those events are loser-goes-home. That will toughen you up, just as playing tournament golf as a broke teenager toughened up Seve, Bernhard, Vijay, Faldo, Carlos Franco and many others.) Nike got the deal of a lifetime when it signed him coming out of Stanford, whatever the actual number was. (Once, when I was fishing for a contract number from Mark Steinberg, he said, "I know and I know who knows and the chance anybody else knowing is zero." Not verbatim, but close.) Tiger at 20 was a seasoned pro, ready to take on all comers.

To a degree, Woods took that match-play attitude to the stroke-play life of the PGA Tour. Not so much on Thursdays and Fridays, when you're playing with two other people and, among other things, you're guarding against the big mistake that might cost you a chance to play on the weekend. But on Saturdays and Sundays, he sure did.

Everybody who follows golf closely knows that Woods has won all 14 of his majors after having at least a piece of the lead through 54 holes. To get in that last group, you have to play your best golf on Saturday, when the course is harder than it was in the opening two rounds. The guy Woods played with on those 14 Saturdays was also playing well, so Tiger's first order of business was to beat that guy. And Tiger did, again and again.

And this is how he did it. He got the honor. He walked up to tee boxes like he owned them and made the other guy watch him. He was parading around a boxing ring, and it was majestic. He tugged on his glove and flexed his muscles. He ripped tee shots, stiffed irons, ignored the frothing crowds, got in a zone, left greens (sometimes) before the other guy had putted out. He was better than you to start with, and now you're looking at this show for 18 holes? Please. By the end of Saturday, Tiger had moved north and the other guy had moved south. One less guy for Tiger to worry about. On Sunday, he did it all over again. And, of course, the players talked. You know how you're preconditioned to find Larry David funny? The players were preconditioned to be defeated by Tiger Woods.

That's not happening now, not on weekends at the majors. That hasn't been happening since Y.E. Yang rallied on Sunday to beat Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship, since the scandal, since various injuries, a swing change, a coaching change, an agency change.

On Saturday at Muirfield, Lee Westwood beat him. On Sunday, Adam Scott did. Tiger lost two days in a row! How often does that happen? If you want to win, for starters you have to beat the guy you're playing with. And doing exactly that has been a big part of Tiger's golfing DNA. You never hear him say at the end of a round, "That was a good pairing for me." He doesn't need a playing partner that puts him in a comfort zone. His comfort zone is, or was, the other player's discomfort.

Phil is different that way. It certainly helped him win in 2006 at Augusta when he played with the mellow Fred Couples on Sunday. Playing in the Muirfield finale with Francisco Molinari of Italy, the same. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more agreeable person than Frankie M. He's respectful, ready to play, doesn't moan or play head games. He's not long. He's not intimidating.

Can Phil win a U.S. Open and join the elite club of golfers who have won all four modern majors? (Tiger, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are the only players to have done it. Still, I'm putting only three people on my Mt. Rushmore of golf: Old Tom, Bob Jones, Big Jack. There's room for a fourth.) Of course Phil can win a U.S. Open. He can win a British Open, right? He's about the youngest 43-year-old with a wife and three kids you'll ever see. (Looking at him gives me hair envy.) His longevity is astounding, and he brings to mind Julius Boros, Sam Snead and Billy Casper, all big men with long swings and long careers. Boros and Casper both won the U.S. Open. Snead did not, but there are people (Mac O'Grady comes to mind) who will tell you he was the best of them all. There's more than one way to measure greatness in this game. The ultimate thing, of course, in golf and in life, is how you judge yourself.

Phil was saying the other day that you have to win all four majors to be considered truly great. Fair enough, even though Snead and Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson did not. Seve, either. All true greats in my book. They lifted the game, made our game better. They took, and they gave. Gene Sarazen! I have to tell you, knowing Gene Sarazen's hot-pistol daughter is a little joy for me. Gene Sarazen would go out for dinner and order ice cream for dessert, a single scoop, "the size of a golf ball." He charmed the old-gal waitresses and everybody else he met.

Phil has some of that. He, in his own way, is already on the all-time great list, as a competitor and as a figure in the game. He's not coming off that list no matter what he does in these next 10 U.S. Opens. Wouldn't you agree? Maybe if he could think about it like that, he could find a way to care less and join Gene and the gang. In any event, it's all good.

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