SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (AP) – One look around this old-money hangout known as Baltusrol Golf Club is all it takes to see how big things have gotten in golf.

There’s the longest in major championship history at 650 yards and a mammoth 503-yard par-4. The drivers look like Volkswagen Beetles attached to fishing poles, the balls go a million miles, and the winner of this week’s PGA Championship gets more than a million dollars.

In an era where everything is supersized, about the only thing missing is a rivalry big enough for Tiger Woods.

In golf, as in other sports, there are some things you just can’t manufacture.

That was supposed to change this year as Woods continued to struggle with swing changes and other players took their turns winning the major championships he once seemed to own.

They even coined a name for the new group of players who would battle each other for the top, borrowing from the past to call them the Big Five. Actually, it was the Big Four before someone figured out Retief Goosen had enough credentials to be a member.

No matter, because now you can call them what you want.

So long, Big Five. Welcome back, Big Un.

Welcome back, because golf has missed you the past two years when you retooled your swing in a never ending quest to get better. Welcome back, because the swing doesn’t seem to be the only thing that has changed.

Maybe it’s marriage, maybe it’s just maturity. Woods is still focused as ever, but he’s seemed more relaxed – no, make that more comfortable – with things on and off the course than he has at any time in his meteoric career.

On Tuesday he hung around after his obligatory pre-tournament press conference to chat amiably for about 20 minutes with writers, something he rarely does. It was as if he was saying “I told you so,” to those who doubted him during the streak of 10 majors that he failed to win.

He was working with a new swing coach, changing a swing he thought wasn’t good enough anymore. It’s plenty good now, and it’s clear Woods couldn’t be happier.

“I remember having the same conversations back in 98 and 99 – Why would you make a change when you won the Masters by 12?”‘ Woods said. “Well, so I could win by 13, and I could win more of them. That’s the whole idea. That’s why I made the changes.”

Scarier for those who dare to challenge Woods is that the best may be yet to come. He wasn’t satisfied after winning three majors in 2000 and he won’t be even if he wins his third this week in the PGA.

“People ask me, “Are you there yet?”‘ Woods said. “No. You never get there. And that’s the great thing about it. You can always be better the next day. That’s how I look at golf and how I look at life. You can always, always be better.”

Spoken by any one else, and those are just words. Everyone who has ever picked up a golf club wants to get better.

But you have to listen when it comes from a guy who has already put his swing through two major overhauls even after banking a slew of major titles and enough money to buy a small country or two.

That’s why Woods will tee off Thursday with a renewed swagger not seen since he was dominating golf and intimidating other players with a string of seven wins in 11 major championships.

If not for a balky putter at the U.S. Open in June, this would really be epic. As it is, he’s trying to do what he did in 2000 and win three of the four major professional championships – a feat only matched by Ben Hogan in 1953.

Oddsmakers think his chances of winning an 11th major title at the age of 29 are more than just good. He’s an unprecedented 2-1 favorite, odds that are even more impressive when his closest challenger on the boards is Vijay Singh at 11-2.

His competitors no longer admit to being intimidated, as Davis Love III did a few years back. They just play that way, like they did last month when Woods romped to a five-shot win in the British Open.

“Certainly he seems pretty confident, absolutely,” Phil Mickelson said.

Mickelson has a good vantage point because he was the guy who draped the green jacket over Woods’ shoulders in April at Augusta National. Lefty won the Masters last year for his first major championship win, then finished second, third and tied for sixth in the other three majors.

Now the charter member of the Big Five is searching for his game, haunted both by an epic loss to Woods at Doral earlier this year and the missed 3-footers that have marred his career.

He’s not the only pretender. Ernie Els will watch this one on television, Goosen will have to block out the memory of his collapse in the U.S. Open and Singh will have to make some putts to stay close.

They’ll have to find a way to beat Woods because, just like in 2000, he’s not likely to beat himself.

“I’ve done this before; I’ve won three majors in one year,” Woods said.

Yes he has, and now the Big Five never seemed so small.



Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

AP-ES-08-09-05 2002EDT


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