Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Tiger felt better as weekend went on



By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

Tiger Woods returned to golf after two months away to find absolutely nothing has changed. He still has what Jordan had. The guys he'll be playing most weekends still don't.

Woods was out because of knee surgery, but wasted so little time regaining his edge that there must have been a putting green in his hospital room. He carded just one bogey in each of his four rounds in the Buick Invitational, made the tough shot when it counted and the impossible one just to finish with a flourish.

CBS on-course reporter David Feherty was along for the ride on that last one, which began 200 yards from the flag on No. 15 in ankle-deep rough. Feherty began by saying the lie would force Woods to play a low, hard-running shot with the 4-iron in his hands, then watched in stunned silence as Woods carved it around a tree instead, depositing the ball on the green as though it had a parachute.

"That's just completely beyond me," Feherty said finally, "and anybody else here this week."

That's hardly news. Woods was better than everybody else when he went under the knife Dec. 12 and the surgery was more about relieving pain in the joint than improving function. Still, human nature suggested he'd need at least one tournament to get back his groove; one round turned out to be more like it.

"The first day, obviously, if you watched me play, I was everywhere. I hit one fairway through ten holes. It wasn't going too good. But each and every day I got better," Woods said. "Felt better over every shot."

The reason for that is the same reason Woods puts more distance between himself and his rivals every day, even sitting at home on the couch. Nothing he learns is ever wasted. During Friday's round Woods arrived at the 231-yard, par-3 11th with a brisk wind in his face, hit 3-iron onto the green and made birdie. At the same hole Sunday, with the tournament still up for grabs, he downloaded the exact sequence from memory.

"Step out there, be committed to it, hit the same shot, stay relaxed and let it go," he recounted. "It came out perfect."

It was right about then that Phil Mickelson was reminded once more how foolish it is to pull Tiger's tail. For reasons only he knows, Mickelson continues to hand Woods material for his bulletin board, the latest being that "Tiger is the only player good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."

What Mickelson meant was that Woods plays low-tech clubs compared to most other pros. What he overlooked is that Woods uses his equipment as a known element in the shotmaking equation, and does the innovating with his athleticism and technique - such as swing speed and angle of attack - to produce shots nobody else can duplicate.

Spending extra hours in the gym or on the practice range is harder than switching golf balls or changing the shafts in his clubs, but there's no arguing with Woods' results or his work ethic. Limited more by imagination than equipment, he likely has another half-dozen experimental shots ready to meet the demands of a specific time and place - an unusually wet early April in Augusta, say, or a bone-dry July along the Kentish coast during the British Open.

The one thing Woods never lacks is motivation. He won't be lucky enough to have Mickelson play the straw man every week, but there are several mileposts worth collecting as this season unfurls.

With 97 made cuts in a row, Woods can eclipse 113 straight Byron Nelson strung together in the 1940s. Another Masters win makes him the first to win three straight. One major title ties him with Gary Player and Ben Hogan for third place all-time; three majors puts him level with Walter Hagen at 11. That leaves only Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors to reel in, a feat Woods has been preparing for since he taped a list of Nicklaus' achievements to his bedroom wall as a child.

For all that, nothing gets the competitive juices flowing like a challenger emerging from the pack. Long touted as his most talented rival, Ernie Els has already has won four times in five events this year, using some of the momentum he gained by winning last summer's British Open.

Sunday morning, before he went out to wrap up the Buick, Woods watched Els register a 29-under par, 10-stroke knockout of the field to add the Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia to his collection. While Els has toed the line he and sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout laid out - worrying more about his own game than what Woods was doing - right now, it's more theory than practice.

Els and Woods won't appear at the same event until the Match Play Championship in two weeks, and even then, it's unlikely they'll go head to head. Like his fellow pros, Els doesn't appear to be in any hurry to find out that Woods is even more relentless than the last time he saw him. Asked after one of those early wins whether it would have been more satisfying with Woods in the tournament, Els said breezily, "I don't miss him."

With good reason.

---

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




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