Restless herd catching up to Woods

We're not supposed to talk about Tiger Woods's so-called slump. Not about the fact that he's looked unusually human in his last two major tournaments, the US and British Opens. Not about the fact that his drives don't seem so long and straight at the moment, that his putts aren't dropping in the cup like the way they used to.

That's Tiger's rule. Praise him only. Stay on the other side of his barricade of security guards. Don't dare enter his exclusive club of world's best golfer. There's only room for one there.

Well, guess what? The gates are creaking open. And there's a restless herd trying to claw their way into the Tiger den. The prize of the day is the 83rd PGA Championship, set this weekend for the Atlanta Athletic Club in Duluth, Ga.

Woods is the favorite, of course, but not to the extent that he has been in the past.

Witness David Duval, coming off his first major win, the British Open at Royal Lytham. Never underestimate the good that can come from getting that first major off his back and into his pocket - or the positive effect that the Georgia Tech grad will have, returning to his home turf.

Witness Phil Mickelson, scratching and scratching, still looking for that first major, still playing with a necessary arrogance. Pretty soon, his door will crack open.

While you're at it, don't count out the non-Americans. They, too, look pretty good right now. Retief Goosen came from nowhere to win the US Open. Sergio Garcia took Tiger to the wire in the 1999 PGA Championship, and is always a threat.

What could become even more worrisome for Tiger, not immediately, but years down the road, are the youngsters, guys like Charles Howell III and Aaron Baddeley. They went to the Earl Woods school, too, cradling a putter while still in the cradle, just as little Tiger did.

Yes, the pack, it appears, is catching up.

"Tiger showed up and took golf by storm," says Matthew Rudy, an editor at Golf Digest magazine. "People were not ready for him. Now, the others have raised their games. There's still a gap, but it's narrowing."

What separates the wannabes from the real thing, however, is performance in the clutch. It's hard to imagine a higher-pressure sport than golf, and it's hard to come up with a more sensitive act than striking a putter - with a million or so dollars on the line.

"I think it's just because of the fact that I've positioned myself there enough times on Sundays in my short career, and I've won," said Woods in a recent press conference when asked if he intimidates his opponents. "I think I may have, I guess, got the reputation that I can play down the stretch."

And that's one place where the field is beginning to focus more. Even the sometimes-volatile Duval began to look like a Zen master when he won the British Open last month. That's the same David Duval who shed 30 pounds a few years ago to give himself a more Tiger-esque physique.

"Everybody's improved because of Tiger," says Jim Fannin, who works with several PGA players, fine-tuning their mental games. "People are better. Tiger has been such a mental giant that the other players have started working more on that part of their game, whereas before, they were working on sand wedges."

The same thing has happened in other sports when a dominant player came along. Michael Jordan changed basketball, and younger players like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson followed his high-flying path. Pete Sampras redefined tennis, and now has to tangle with younger versions of himself, like Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. The point: It's easier to follow a blueprint than it is to draw one.

Another factor narrowing the gap between Tiger and the ordinary world is the rapid growth of golf in the past decade - something for which Tiger is partially responsible.

Whereas golf used to be a sport for kids who couldn't cut it on the baseball diamond or football field - it's now cool.

"It used to be that the best athlete on the playground would be the quarterback for the football team or the pitcher for the baseball team," says Mr. Rudy, the golf editor. "Now you're finding good athletes saying, 'Golf is realistic for me. I can get a scholarship with golf. I can make money from golf.' "

All of which does not mean that Tiger should be counted out of winning his third consecutive PGA championship. He seems focused, and now could be his time to turn his game up a notch, to add yet another line to the record books.

After all, he's still the best.

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