What tricks can Tiger pull out of his bag in 2001?

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2001

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Now for the encore.

Tiger Woods arrived in Maui for the winners-only Mercedes Championship, along with 32 other players who picked up the leftovers in a 2000 season that Woods dominated like few people could have imagined.

His nine victories were the most since 1950. No one since Ben Hogan in 1953 had ever won three straight majors. No one in history had won a U.S. Open by 15 shots, or finished 19 under in a major championship the way Woods did at the British Open.

''Ten years from now, are we going to look at 2000 as an unbelievable year, or is that the mean?'' Dennis Paulson said. ''Is that what he's going to do for a long time?''

Woods pondered that question late Tuesday afternoon after hitting a few pitch shots to the 18th green on the Plantation Course, the same hole where last year he matched Ernie Els' finish of eagle in regulation, birdie in the playoff and won on the next hole with a 40-foot birdie putt that had 6 feet of break.

Do you think last year was a new standard?

''Yeah, I do,'' Woods replied without hesitation. ''And I can improve on that. I can improve in every category.''

Impossible?

Consider last year. Woods improved in every major statistical category except one -- he hit 71.2 percent of his fairways, down from 71.3 percent in 1999. What a slacker.

He won more money, more tournaments, more majors. His adjusted scoring average was 67.79, the lowest ever. His actual average of 68.17 shattered the record of Byron Nelson in 1945 (68.33) and was 1.46 strokes better than anyone else, an average of six strokes per tournament.

All of which makes his peers wonder what this season holds.

''How do you con yourself into believing he can do more than he did last year?'' Hal Sutton said. ''Some of his goals might be unrealistic. Some might be stretching it. But he's stretched it to the max enough times that people believe. More importantly, he believes it.''

Woods turned 25 on Dec. 30, still at least five years away from reaching his prime. He has transcended his sport like few athletes before him. The galleries double in size whenever he plays, and television ratings skyrocket.

Somehow, Woods manages to block out the distractions around him. He just plays golf, better than anyone in the world, maybe better than anyone ever.

Just how good can he get?

''Who knows?'' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. ''To win three majors in a year against this competition? To win by this margin, that margin, to hit that shot out of a bunker? It goes on and on and on.

''As long as he has this enthusiasm for the game that fuels his practice ethic and focus, the sky is the limit. Nothing would shock me any more.''

About the only controversy Woods created was his public criticism of Finchem over marketing and Internet rights, and the money the PGA Tour demands for Woods to stage televised events. They hashed it out in a private meeting a month later and said it was nothing that could not be fixed.

Woods caused one other stir during his holiday break, when he dyed his hair blond and then told a national television audience from the sidelines of the Orange Bowl that the sun must have bleached it.

He showed up in Maui with a shaved head, a sign that the fun was over and it was time to get back to business.

''If you keep getting better, the victories will come,'' Woods said.

He is not unbeatable. Woods badly wanted to have 10 PGA Tour victories last year but came up short in each of the final three weeks -- to Duffy Waldorf at Disney, Phil Mickelson at the Tour Championship and Mike Weir in Spain.

But he remains the man to beat in every tournament.

''He can get better,'' Rocco Mediate said. ''He knows that. Everybody knows that. That's what is so scary. When Tiger starts a year, he probably says, 'I want to win every tournament I play.' He's the only one who can think that way.''

Woods doesn't win every week, but he comes close.

He finished out of the top 10 only three times in 20 tour events last year. The farthest out of the lead he finished all year was seven strokes -- and he made up a seven-stroke deficit in seven holes at Pebble Beach last year, so anything is possible.

The target this year is the Grand Slam. That could mean a victory in the Masters, which would give him all four majors at the same time, or winning all four majors in the same calendar year. Maybe both.

He would not consider the year a disappointment if he doesn't win as much, only if he doesn't give himself a chance.

''Other guys can play better,'' he said. ''You can get some bad luck down the stretch or hit a bad shot at the wrong time. The key is to keep putting yourself there. I did that a lot last year. And that's something I can do a better job of this year.''

What remains to be seen is if 2000 was an incredible year or, as Paulson said, the mean.

''It would be nice if it was the mean,'' Woods said, his smile broadening as he considered the possibilities. ''But that's the beauty of the game. We don't know.''

Starting Thursday, we'll find out.



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