Woods in His Own Time Zone

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget about living on Tulsa time.

We are on Tiger time now and sports historians are synchronizing their watches.

You'd like to put in a good word for Ernie Els this week, rally around David Duval, raise a flag for Phil Mickelson.

Did you know Els is a two-time U.S. Open champion, or that Duval is the only player in the 156-man field to finish in the top 10 each of the last three years, or that Mickelson is one Tiger Woods slice --index finger on a potato peeler-- from being the favorite?

A surge from Sergio Garcia would be grand.

A man can dream, no?

One can honestly hope that Southern Hills, the heat-seeking course hosting this 101st U.S. Open beginning Thursday, will be the foreboding monster it has allegedly been doctored to be.

Yet, Woods has already taken to deflating the course, much as he has deflated the competition.

Take the par-five fifth hole, Tiger-ized to 642 yards, the longest hole in U.S. Open history.

That ought to level the pitch--yes, sir--negate an easy eagle chance for Woods.

Nobody gets on the green in two shots now, right?

"I hit it there yesterday," Woods said Tuesday of his Monday practice round.

Six hundred and forty-two yards.

On in two.

Terrific.

So why, again, have we all gathered here under a sweltering sun?

It's about posterity, folks, not pitching wedges.

Woods is in the midst of something special.

His story is center cut on the world sporting stage.

We get so busy arguing over what constitutes winning a Grand Slam--must it be in the same calendar year?--that we miss the point that somebody is actually doing something to prompt this discussion.

Woods is so chip-deep in the zone he hasn't had time to contemplate what he is doing.

Woods has won four consecutive major championships dating to his 15-shot victory at last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Woods defends his national championship this week. Since World War II, only Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange have successfully defended.

Yet, Woods somehow begins this competition as perhaps the most prohibitive favorite in the history of golf.

"Would I put money on me?" he said. "Probably not. Just because I don't think it would be a good business decision, with those odds.

"Now, do I like my chances? Yes, I do."

Others have been left to contemplate what a fifth consecutive major title would mean.

Writers are tripping over their tongues trying to make sense of it.

Golfers too.

Duval, a former world No. 1 player and once Woods' primary challenger, said Tiger's feat of four majors in a row is already one of sport's greatest accomplishments.

"I think it's second to none in the game of golf, in sports, in general," Duval said Tuesday.

Some have tried to compare what Woods has done to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

"I don't really know how you could compare it to that 56-game hitting streak," Duval said. "I may be biased, but I'd sure like to have Tiger's streak."

Woods isn't ready to mix and match his feats just yet.

He's too close to the moment, he says, too involved in the mechanics.

"I'm not trying to win five," Woods said. "I'm trying to win one. I guess that's the best way I can explain it. I'm here this week just to win this week. What I've accomplished in the past, that's great, but it doesn't hit any golf shots for me this week . . . Whatever I've done in the previous four majors isn't going to help me hit any shots out there. I'm not going to have an out-of-body experience and sit there and watch myself hit a shot."

Southern Hills is not a bad place to put Woods' career in perspective.

He last played here as a PGA rookie at the 1996 Tour Championship.

Before the second round, his father, Earl, was hospitalized because of heart problems.

A distracted Tiger shot a 78 that day, still the highest competitive round he has played as a professional.

Woods was vulnerable then, a cub. Pundits cautioned against far-flung comparisons to Jack Nicklaus.

Five years later, Woods at 25 is at the pinnacle of greatness, with plenty more on the horizon.

Woods begins this tournament with an amazing inner calm, as if he knows, as we know, as they know, what is destined to happen.

It's hotter than Biloxi blacktop here, and Tiger seems like the only guy not sweating it.

Someone asked Woods on Tuesday if he ever wakes at night and realizes what he's done.

"Usually when I wake up in the middle of the night, it's to do something else," Woods shot back.

Seriously, though.

"Sometimes I really don't have that appreciation for what I've been able to accomplish," Woods said, "because I've been so focused on that and I don't see the periphery and what it really means. Sometimes I have to rely on others to give me a clear perspective of what it really has meant in the game."

The game resumes Thursday.

The "others" are standing by for perspective.

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