'Same driver, just hot this week'

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

For all the fuss Tiger Woods made about everyone else's drivers, he needed his own just a half-dozen times each round to make his point.

When he is on, Woods could play tee to green swinging a shovel and putt with a wine bottle and still win.

Moments after he'd coasted to his first win in almost four months, and lapped most of the field in the Western Open in the bargain, Woods laughed, ''Am I the leading candidate for comeback player of the year?''

But after the week he had, honorable mention might be a possibility.

Already rankled by a few stories that suggested he was slumping, Woods invited even more criticism last week by turning up the volume in his campaign against illegal equipment. Woods first went public with his complaints in late May, then called out commissioner Tim Finchem on Wednesday, one day after the PGA Tour boss announced that testing for ''hot'' drivers wouldn't be mandatory and wouldn't be available until January.

Woods even contradicted Finchem's assertion that no tour player would knowingly use illegal equipment, saying he'd already spoken to one golfer about it though Woods refused to identify him. For all that, though, his real attention-grabbing statement was yet to come.

However it's finally resolved, the issue of ''hot'' drivers provided a neat little smoke screen for the six weeks or so it flared. The controversy took some of the focus off Woods' own erratic driving and made the rest of us wonder whether the gap between him and the competition might be narrowing.

But the final result at the Western the win was Woods' fourth title already this season served as a reminder that just the opposite is true.

''Unfortunately, we've got a guy who's superhuman out here this week,'' runner-up Rich Beem said at the end of a long afternoon.

The defending PGA champion had just posted a 16-under-par total of 272 and still finished five strokes behind Woods.

''There's going to be times when he does this to fields,'' Beem added, ''but that's OK.''

Ever since his last win in mid-March, talk about Woods centered on what he didn't have: For the first time in four years, he didn't have even one of the four major titles; for the first time since coming out on tour, he didn't have a spot among the top 25 in driving distance let alone his usual place among the top three.

Though Woods counseled patience, the list of his shortcomings didn't stop there.

Then, in Thursday's opening round, he hit 10 of 14 fairways, 15 of the 18 greens at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club and shot a course record-tying 63. He let his clubs do all the talking. Woods hit the occasional speed bump several times over the next three rounds, but ultimately he cruised to victory in as convincing a fashion as ever.

''Just like I kept telling you guys,'' he told reporters afterward, ''I was close to putting things together.''

After holding his tongue for so long, Woods couldn't resist one more dig at anybody who used the word ''slump'' in a story over the last 3 1/2 months.

''One of the things I've learned about being out here is not to get trapped in this up-and-down roller coaster of the press, sensationalism.''

Otherwise, he was every bit the consummate professional friends and foes alike have come to expect. And though hardly intended as such, his performance provided a useful lesson to the would-be Tigress who spent the same four days several thousand miles to the west trying to carve out her own place in the game.

That would be 13-year-old Michelle Wie, who played in her first U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Oregon, and ran smack dab into her first controversy when she and her father-caddie, B.J. Wie, were accused of breaching etiquette by playing partner and veteran pro Danielle Ammaccapane.

The resulting exchanges apparently threw the phenom off her game. Wie shot a 5-over 76 Sunday to finish at 14 over not bad for a kid, but not the stuff of legend, either. Less encouraging was her reply when asked whether the tournament had been a valuable experience.

''Yeah, I guess,'' Wie said. ''Sort of.''

Woods, on the other hand, learned long ago that with the spotlight comes heat. He was accused in some corners of raising the driver issue not because of integrity, but in part to please the equipment company that has him under contract. If such talk bothers Woods, he keeps it to himself.

Perhaps because, with the British Open now just two weeks off, his game appears to be rounding into form at the right time. In fact, Woods finished the week here ranked second in driving distance, explaining his return to the familiar spot with some carefully chosen words and a mischievous smile.

''Same driver,'' he said, ''just hot this week.''

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



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