By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Let me get this straight -- a word that rarely describes his tee shots.

Tiger Woods is better and worse than ever.

Tiger Woods
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Tiger Woods is still collecting trophies -- but he's not at the top of his game. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

He leads the golf world in clubs flipped in anger, curse words caught by network boom mikes, spectators scattered with rocket slices, lucky bounces, miraculous recovery shots and money won.

He keeps hitting that new Nike Sasquatch driver into places no abominable snowman would go.

And he keeps winning.

By default.

He has won three times already this year, mostly because nobody else could. This Tiger isn't nearly as good as the 2000 Tiger was -- yet neither is his competition. Last year's so-called Big Five? It's now Tiger and the lilies.

The other four have pretty much conceded to a relatively toothless Tiger.

Phil Mickelson is fat and happy and content to rack up top-10s and win an occasional major when Tiger is a rare nonfactor.

Vijay Singh, now 43, risks burnout because he plays and practices more than any mortal ever has. And how can he consistently challenge Tiger when he changes putters and putting grips almost as often as Tiger changes socks? Singh has sung.

Ernie Els has fallen out of shape recovering from knee surgery and has never had Tiger's rage to dominate.

Retief Goosen's confidence swings wildly from Tiger-like to cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof-like.

Sergio Garcia? As a Tiger rival, he's proving to be a delightful fraud. "Tiger rival" Adam Scott? Hype, hype, hooray. Now we're reaching for Camilo Villegas, J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson -- please, somebody give our Tiger a little competition, just to make it interesting or, if humanly possible, push him to greater heights.

You at least thought you could trust David Toms to stare unflinchingly into the eye of this Tiger. Toms doesn't have Tiger's commitment to rippled fitness, but at least he has guts.

But Toms, playing just ahead of Tiger on Sunday at Doral, 3-putted 18 while Tiger watched from -- where else? -- the rough. Toms allowed Tiger to win with bogeys on 17 and 18.

This is getting embarrassing. They're even afraid of Tiger's shadow.

Although Tiger clearly doesn't trust his swing under final-holes pressure, three times this year he basically has said, "You guys don't want it? I'll take it."

He led the Buick Open in the number of times "Fore, right!" was yelled, then took it on the second playoff hole with a par to Jose Maria Olazabal's bogey.

He played Army golf at the Dubai Invitational -- left, right, left, right -- then took it on the first playoff hole when Els hit his drive into a palm-tree wasteland and his second shot into the water.

The point here is that Stephen Ames was just stating a fact before playing Tiger in the first round of the Accenture Match Play. Ames rather innocently said, "Anything can happen, especially where he's hitting the ball."

Phil Mickelson
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Phil Mickelson doesn't look up to the task of taming Tiger right now. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The truth hit Tiger where it hurts most -- his pride. So he summoned Masters/Open focus and fury for poor Ames, a last-second replacement. Tiger Woods dropped a nuclear bomb on a gnat, willing away his swing flaws and playing one of his greatest rounds ever.

It seemed beneath Tiger to take such wounded pride in beating Ames 9 and 8. He also spent so much energy obliterating Ames that he didn't have much left the next day for Robert Allenby. Tiger didn't win as much as Allenby lost, with a final-hole bogey.

The next day, Woods was eliminated by Chad Campbell -- another overhyped "Tiger rival" who seemed as shocked by winning as Tiger was by losing.

Tiger can still be a little delusional about the soundness of his swing. Tiger gets steamed when I dare go "Stephen Ames" and speak the truth about it. So does his coach, Hank Haney.

But right now, Tiger Woods is the wildest driver this side of a final NASCAR lap.

Fore, right!

The stats don't lie. Tiger ranks 181st (of 191) in PGA Tour driving accuracy, hitting only 47.9 percent of his fairways. That's two places behind John "Grip It and Rip It" Daly, who's at 48 percent.

Worse, Tiger ranks 193rd (of 194) in right-rough frequency, pushing or power-fading his drives into the long grass 29.3 percent of the time.

Again and again, he uncoils so furiously that his hands can't catch up and the club face is left disastrously open at impact.

Yet again and again, Tiger and his coach tell us his swing is light years ahead of where it was last year. Now, they say, his checklist is so much shorter that he can fix flaws on the fly during a round.

On the Tuesday before the Accenture Match Play, Haney called over several TV commentators to watch Woods on the practice tee, telling them this should be recorded on film because it doesn't get any better. But as Tiger says, he doesn't want to be Ranger Rick, the guy who loses that flawless ball-striking flow on the way from the range to the course.

He and Haney can try to convince us (and themselves) all they want, but Tiger does not have supreme confidence in the swing rebuilt by Haney.

So how does he keep winning?

Here's the irony: While millions tune in to have their eyes widened by Tiger's awesome length off the tee, they can't see the forest through the trees he's often in. He doesn't win with power as much as he survives with extraordinary skill and finesse.

You can have Watson or Crenshaw or Ballesteros. Tiger Woods has become the greatest escape artist the game has ever known. No one has hit more great bad-lie shots.

And right now, no one has a better short game, and no one is a better putter.

Result: The same Tiger who is 191st in fairways hit is No. 2 in greens in regulation and No. 1 in birdies per round (5.3).

Yes, he often hits it so far into trouble -- he ranks eighth in driving distance -- that he's hitting short irons out of trouble.

Tiger Woods
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Tiger is staying in front by making tremendous saves from the sand and the rough. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

That's why, at the wide-open bomber's paradise that is Doral, he could miss 11 of 14 fairways on Sunday and still shoot 69. Right now, Tiger is better at inventing a recovery shot than hitting a ball off a tee.

"Fore, right!" often turns into a birdie 4.

Then again, maybe there's one other reason The Others are more intimidated than ever. Maybe they privately believe Tiger "in the" Woods has sold his soul for some of the most miraculous bad-shot bounces this side of a Disney movie.

This I cannot back up with stats. But Tiger Woods gets more breaks than any great (or even good) player ever.

Most people remember Tiger's spectacular chip-in on No. 16 that won last year's Masters. I can't forget how many lucky bounces he got on shots that were headed for double-bogeyville -- or that he bogeyed 17 and 18 before beating Chris DiMarco on the first playoff hole.

At Doral, it was downright eerie. On Saturday, Villegas' errant drive on 18 kicked behind the giant banyan tree -- which spit out Tiger's drive with an open shot to the green. On Sunday, Tiger's 3-wood second on 12 knuckleballed through the greenside bunker. Later, he was allowed to place his ball in the rough after it rolled closer to the hole after two drops.

Although Doral isn't exactly wooded, not once did one of Tiger's rocket slices land him in chip-out jail. Again, he won by one.

Yet whether he's lucky or great or both, Tiger Woods now owns golf more than ever. Yes, it's better to have Tiger unopposed than Tiger as an also-ran. But when Tiger can win from the woods, his rivals have to wonder what he'll do if he ever starts finding the fairway.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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TIGER TRUTH