ROCHESTER (New York): Tiger Woods has been stripped of one of his key weapons in dominating his rivals – the 'F' word.
Suddenly players have lost their 'fear' of the 27-year-old world number one whose target in life is to shatter Jack Nicklaus' record of 21 major wins.
His failure to seriously challenge, never mind win, a major in the 2003 season has left him still respected by his peers, but not feared.
At last week's USPGA Woods was never in the hunt, finishing with a 12-over par 292 - his worst four round total on American soil since the 1996 US Open when he was a 20-year-old amateur.
When Woods set the golf world alight with arguably the greatest four rounds of golf ever seen as he swept to a stunning 15 shot victory over Ernie Els in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, the rest of the world's best were in fear of him.
Follow up wins in the British Open and USPGA left them shellshocked.
Els was the first to admit that Woods was so far ahead of the rest that he was almost unbeatable.
“Well, I won the championship I was playing in,” said Els after coming second to Woods at Pebble Beach.
“He is just so good. When he is playing his best no-one can beat him.”
Colin Montgomerie, then Europe's number one player and on his way to a record breaking seventh straight European Order of Merit title agreed.
“If I play my best and Tiger plays his best, Tiger wins,” said the burly Scot.
Such defeatism allowed Woods to dominate the majors and pull off the unheard of 'Tiger Slam' by holding all four majors at the same time – a feat even the legendary Nicklaus could never manage.
Darren Clarke, whose main claim to fame was beating Woods in a head-to-head matchplay shoot-out in the WGC world matchplay championship in 2000, was in awe of the American.
“Tiger will probably win two majors a year. That leaves two for the rest of us. So the odds have been dramatically cut,” said the Ulsterman two years ago at the USPGA.
Such comments outraged Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
“The guys are so scared Tiger can win anything,” raged Nicklaus. “Someone needs to step up and challenge him.”
When Woods was beaten by a single shot by the almost unknown Rich Beem at last year's USPGA, suddenly the 'fear factor' began to diminish.
“I think I probably proved to everybody that if you stick to your guns and stick to you game, then you know he's going to have to play some great golf to beat you,” said Beem.
“Tiger is always going to win his fair share of golf tournaments. There's just no stopping that.
“But you know, it's not so much a case of we are going to give it to him anymore. He's going to earn them,” added Beem.
European number one Padraig Harrington agrees.
“Attitudes have changed,” admitted the Dubliner. “Before there was an attitude you had to play really well to beat Tiger but now players are taking the attitude 'I'll just play my own game and let him play well if he wants to beat me'
“They are putting the emphasis back on Tiger whereas before Tiger had the emphasis on the opposition.”
Now the players simply respect Woods.
“He is still the world number one,” accepts Els.
But suddenly the 'fear' has gone.
Woods is simply another, albeit the world number one and holder of eight majors, player to beat. – AFP