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Tiger's slump qualifies as excellent for most

Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2003

Superman had Kryptonite. Samson had Delilah. Tiger Woods has his weak moments, too. Or not.

''I don't think I've ever been in a slump,'' he said Tuesday, then paused for a heartbeat to actually consider the question. ''No.

''I think my overall career has been pretty good. Ever since I came out of the womb and started playing golf,'' Woods added, smiling, ''I've had a pretty good career.''

To say it's been one unbroken run of success from the cradle to the green is an exaggeration. But only a slight one. He's known moments of anxiety and self-doubt, Just not too often.

Woods was 2 when he beat Bob Hope in a putting contest on the old ''Mike Douglas Show,'' 8 when he collected the first of six international junior titles, and 21 when he won the first of eight majors against guys his own size. He hasn't lifted his foot off the world's throat since.

Yet somehow, despite almost four dozen wins as a pro and some $40 million in prize money, Woods arrived at the U.S. Open this week having gone four tournaments in a row without winning even once. His best finish in that stretch, including the Masters, was fourth place. Now, add in the fact he hasn't been in contention on the back nine on Sunday since the end of March (then conveniently forget Woods won three of the first four tournaments he entered this year) and what you have ... is the hint ... of a whiff ... of a scent ... of a slump.

So, naturally, this is the way Tuesday's news conference began:

Reporter: ''Tiger, are you concerned about what we are concerned about ...''

Woods: ''I didn't know you were concerned about it.''

Woods had to be asked twice after that for his definition of a slump, and this is what he finally came up with: ''I guess it's when you completely lose your game.''

Not exactly.

Guys who lose their game completely never quite recover. Most wind up as answers to trivia questions, like Tigers pitching phenom Mark ''The Bird'' Fidrych. The cautionary tale in golf around the same time was Bill Rogers; in the last decade, it became Ian Baker-Finch, who went from winning the British Open in 1991 to the broadcast booth a few years later after being unable to break 90.

Nobody asked Woods to provide an example of a slump, but there was a whopper available nearby. The Chicago Cubs, who play just 45 minutes up the road at Wrigley Field, won back-to-back World Series in 1907-08, and haven't won another since. Then there were the New Orleans Saints, who scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff of their first game in their first NFL season, then lost the game to begin the first of what would be 20 consecutive losing seasons.

By contrast, a slump by anybody in Woods' class draws whispers the moment it extends beyond a month, a few matches or a handful of games.

Muhammad Ali could barely survive two losses in a row; the same number of knockouts meant the end of his career. Leave aside the third coming and you'd be hard-pressed to find consecutive games during his 13 seasons with the Bulls where Michael Jordan wasn't clearly the best player on the floor. The only thing on ice that took fewer nights off than Wayne Gretzky was the Zamboni; over the course of 20 seasons, the Great One tallied almost twice as many points goals and assists combined as games played.

Woods' work is not as dangerous as Ali's, but he doesn't have the luxury of a team to cover his back, either. His winning percentage, around .290 since turning pro, may not seem impressive until you consider that as many as 150 others are arrayed against him.

And so, the only exact comparison as in so many other things is with Jack Nicklaus. And as things worked out, a young Tiger taped a list of the Golden Bear's accomplishments to the wall of his bedroom and has since beat Nicklaus to every one.

How soon we forget: In 2000, Woods won nine times, including the last three majors, then started 2001 by going six tournaments without a win. After he double-bogeyed the 18th at the Desert Classic in Dubai to lose to Thomas Bjorn, the cover of one prominent golf magazine blurted out, ''What's Wrong With Tiger?''

The short answer then, as now, turned out to be nothing. He promptly won his next three starts, including the Masters (which enabled him to pose alongside all four major trophies), and then twice more on tour after that. Last year, the questions he was fielding had more to do with Grand Slamming than slumping.

Which may be why whatever sense of urgency the rest of us feel, the only rhythm Woods cares about is his own.

Reporter: ''Could you give us a rundown on how your game is, in your observation.''

Woods (disinterestedly): ''I'm hitting the ball well this week. I'm pleased at the signs I'm showing.''

If I'm Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh or Sergio Garcia, the fact that Woods is tired of talking about it tells me this slump ends starting on the first tee Thursday.

The race for second place will begin immediately afterward.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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