Players perform at the top of their game

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 22, 2000

Jerry Miller

Sports Columnist

Just how good is Tiger Woods? Never have I seen one player dominate a sport like Tiger is doing at the moment. It is particularly impressive in the world of professional golf. Through the years, the PGA has been led by several players at a time who could win a tournament any given week. Major tournaments have typically been decided late with several players in the hunt for a title. Someone leading wire to wire was the exception rather than the rule. Woods, however, has completely changed the rules. He not only led this year’s U.S. Open from start to finish, he had lapped the field by the fourth round.

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Tiger won by 15 strokes and was the only player in red figures when the final putt was made. He was 12-under and the next closest score was 3-over. Woods completely dominated the fabled Pebble Beach course that had been toughened to U. S. Open standards. You would never had known it, however, watching Tiger march through the final 26 holes without a single bogey. The toughened course didn’t faze Woods in the least. Instead, it claimed the rest of the field who had to be shaking their heads watching Tiger enjoy so much success while they struggled.

It has to be a sobering situation for PGA players trying to compete with this kid. Yes, I call him a kid because, in spite of his enormous success, he is still only 24 years old. And the consensus among the players is that he is not as good as he will be. How scary is that? He certainly doesn’t seem to be satisfied. Reports had him out on the practice tee at 5:30 a.m. during the middle of the tournament. Considering that experience is still the best teacher, it is not unreasonable to see him improving his game over the next few years. If that happens, the only mystery in golf each week will be his final margin of victory.

Another player at the top of his game is Shaquille O’Neal, who this week led his Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title over the outmanned Indiana Pacers. O’Neal added a playoff MVP to his regular season and All Star MVP awards with his play in the Finals. His formidable physical~presence left teams with absolutely no answers. In fact, several resorted to "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy by intentionally fouling him with or without the ball and taking their chances with him at the foul line. It didn’t work, but it did give them some semblance of hope.

Shaq attributes much of his and his team’s success to new head coach Phil Jackson. Jackson added his seventh NBA title to his already impressive resume. Granted, he has had some of the very best players in the game on his side during this stretch, but there is no denying his coaching ability. Getting superstars to mesh with the rest of a team is no easy task, but it seems to be Jackson’s strong suit. With the talent he has in Los Angeles, he may soon have a ring for every finger on both hands.

While the focus has been on Jackson and his Lakers the game may have quietly said good-bye to one of the icons of the sport. Larry Bird says he will honor his original promise of only five years as an NBA coach and step down as the coach of the Pacers. The likelihood is he will leave the game altogether in spite on countless offers to move into management. What a class act! The sport of basketball has truly been blessed by his contributions and will sorely miss his presence.