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Talk continues of a Tiger slump

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

Ask Tiger Woods how his year is going and he'll smile and patiently recite his winning percentage for anyone willing to listen.

The numbers suggest domination, while the smile fixed on Woods' face barely conceals his irritation at the misguided fool who dares suggest that all may not be right with his game.

Actually, to even hint Woods is in a slump seems silly. He's won four times this year, leads the PGA Tour scoring average by more than a half-shot a round at 68.30, and blew away the field to win the Western Open in his last start.

London bookies made him the odds-on favorite to win the British Open this week, and add a second claret jug to a trophy case already filled with green jackets and other major championship trinkets.

But as Woods tees it up Thursday on quirky Royal St. George's, the unthinkable has happened. He's without a major championship to defend for the first time since 1999 and suddenly seems vulnerable in the tournaments he so covets.

He's still the greatest player in the game, but now he's finding this out:

It's hard enough just being Tiger Woods.

It's almost impossible to keep following his act.

''He can't live up to those expectations,'' Jim Furyk said. ''I think the expectation that everyone has upon him and the media have upon him, that it's almost unrealistic.''

Unrealistic or not, golf fans have come to expect Woods to win every time he enters a tournament. If it's a major championship, they know he'll be in contention Sunday.

And who's to blame them? Woods himself set the bar way too high by winning four straight major titles for a consecutive Grand Slam that now ranks as one of the greatest feats of the modern game.

When Woods won the U.S. Open last year at Bethpage, he had won seven of the last 11 major championships.

Woods seemed unbeatable until falling apart with an 81 in brutal weather in the third round of last year's British Open. Now, he hasn't won a major title since, and everyone wants to know what's wrong.

''I'm sure that's going to be how it is my entire career,'' Woods said. ''If I don't win for a few weeks, then all of a sudden I'm back in it again. 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. That's what sells.''

Woods pushed aside any serious talk of a slump by running away with the Western Open for his 38th career PGA Tour win. It was a nice win, but that's not the Open Woods had his eye on when the year began.

Woods understands it's the major championships that define great players. Few remember that Jack Nicklaus won 71 PGA tournaments, but they know he won a record 18 major titles.

Woods knows it better than anyone. As a kid he had Nicklaus' list of major championships taped to his bedroom wall to give him something to shoot at.

So far, Woods has won eight, and if you were putting a few pounds down with London bookies last year, the odds were that he'd have a few more by now.

Instead, the number that sticks with Woods now is a very unTigerlike oh-for-the-last-four major championships.

He's not in a slump of major proportions, but he's certainly in a mini-slump in the major championships.

It may not be fair to criticize, but that's the burden Woods has to bear for being so good. And that's why fans lining the fairways of Augusta National and Olympia Fields this year were as shocked as his fellow players when Woods shot 75s in both the Masters and U.S. Open to drop from contention.

''He got on such a roll there in the '90s and early 2000s that everybody expected him to win,'' said Rich Beem, who held off Woods to win last year's PGA Championship. ''Unfortunately, we in the locker room know that he's an awesome player. He's proved it time and time again. But he's not going to be able to win everything.''

Woods insists the media always seems to miss the point, that golf is a tough game and that even Nicklaus didn't win them all.

He's hoping that his driver that has plagued him lately will straighten out, the putts will finally drop and the ball will bounce the right way off the mounds and undulations of Royal St. George's this week.

If that happens, Woods will be holding another claret jug aloft Sunday, a title that will take him halfway to the 18 major championships Nicklaus holds. The slump talk will officially end, and all will be right in the world of golf again.

Until then, his fellow players are enjoying a rare moment that doesn't figure to last.

''I don't think he's changed much,'' Ernie Els said. ''I think other players are getting better, but Tiger is still there.''

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org



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