Will Tiger be great again?

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Tiger Woods had signed for his best score at Riviera and was cleaning out his locker, a process that usually includes sorting through a number of unsolicited letters.

One was from a woman who implored him to say, ''God is good,'' instead of God-something else whenever his drive sails into the trees, an iron shot lands next to a popcorn stand or a par putt spins out of the hole.

Another came from a teaching pro, who said he's been in the business for 18 years and noticed a swing flaw.

''If you stand in front of the mirror and watch your left wrist ...'' Woods mumbled as he raced through the words, unable to keep from laughing.

Woods has come to expect this kind of scrutiny.

But he does not look particularly sharp two months into the year, and it could get even more intense considering the recent changes in his game, his life and the landscape on the PGA Tour.

He is coming off a season in which he failed to win the money title or a major championship for the first time since he overhauled his swing five years ago.

His gap in the world ranking is shrinking every week.

He recently got engaged, although the only difference is that Elin Nordegren's left hand is a little heavier.

What really has his competition buzzing is the divorce from swing coach Butch Harmon. Woods has worked with Harmon since he was 16, and now goes it alone on the practice range.

Woods is not measured against other golfers, but against the three-year stretch when he won 23 of 59 times on the PGA Tour, including seven out of 11 major championships.

He has heard the word ''slump'' three times over the last five years, and unless he defends his title this week at the Match Play Championship, or next week in Dubai, or if he fails to win the Bay Hill Invitational for a record fifth straight time, it probably will come up again.

It is difficult to gauge where Woods is after only three tournaments and a four-week break in between.

But it is clear he is battling with his swing and not winning many of the battles.

One week, he drove the ball all over Torrey Pines and was spared by good iron play. At Riviera, he had his best driving week since winning the 2002 U.S. Open, but his iron play deserted him.

''Welcome to golf, you know?'' he said.

He put it together Sunday in the Nissan with a 64 that gave him a tie for seventh, but it only disguised an otherwise ordinary week. He started the final round 14 shots out of the lead, and was never a factor on the weekend.

Woods has three top 10s in three events. His highest score is a 72, and Woods is still capable of turning a bad round into something respectable.

No need to lose sleep over that.

Woods went six tournaments without winning or seriously contending in 2001 and 2002, and he won the Masters both years and was the toast of golf.

''He's trying to tune that car of his,'' Nick Price said Monday. ''He'll get his timing right. All he does when he starts the beginning of the year is look at April.''

But there is something different about him this year.

Woods looks like everyone else.

Other players have always been able to hit spectacular shots like Woods.

The difference is, he has been making their mistakes.

Every round, he seems to be throwing away two or three shots, which he rarely does.

''I would agree with that,'' Woods said.

The statistical category Woods has dominated over the last five years is scrambling the number of times he can save par when he misses the green.

Woods was in the top 10 every year since 1999 No. 1 in 2001 and 2002 but slipped to 57th last year. Through three events this year, he is a paltry 189th, saving par only 46 percent of the time.

''It's from putting myself in a spot where I can't get up-and-down,'' he said.

His demeanor on the course has changed, too. Woods has mastered the stop, drop and roll.

He stops following the flight of his ball. He drops his club. He rolls his eyes.

Woods was on the range at La Costa, going from his driver to a 5-iron to a wedge, back to the 5-iron and the driver, stopping between shots, working on the timing of his arms and the turn of his hips.

Harmon was 20 feet away, working with Darren Clarke, then Justin Leonard.

Woods believes he can figure out his flaws alone. Bobby Jones told Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s that no one can ever be a great player until he learns to correct his own mistakes.

''I haven't reached a point where I really need a pair of eyes, when I'm struggling that badly, where I need some help,'' Woods said at the start of the season. ''I'm sure there will be a point in my career. Hopefully, I can figure it out between now and then.''

There is no need to panic.

But until he wins, and unless there is a green jacket in his closet, he can expect more scrutiny than ever.

And a lot more mail in his locker.



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