- Tim Rosaforte
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As Tiger Woods hit balls last week at Big Canyon in Southern California, preparing for his 2007 debut at the Buick Invitational, there were no mentions of his six straight wins, the Tiger Slam, the FedEx Cup or major championships. "He never talks about that stuff," said swing instructor Hank Haney. "Obviously the majors are important tournaments to him, but he only talked about what he needs to do to get better. He's got to keep improving to maintain his edge."
That is a scary thought considering Woods won his last six events on the PGA Tour in 2006, including the British Open and the PGA Championship; never finishing worse than second in his last 11 stroke-play events, including two in Asia; and concluding with second-season wins at the PGA Grand Slam and Target World Challenge. But it's typical of Woods, who endured the loss of his father last year and will celebrate the birth of his first child this summer. With a family on the way and a golf course design firm beginning with a $25 million job in Dubai, this represents a new phase in Woods' life and career -- one when he will be more selective despite pressure from tournaments to play more.
"It hasn't been that long since he won at his tournament, and he's been practicing hard, feels like he's coming along good, that he's improving," Haney said. "It goes without saying there were a lot of bright spots last year. The [WGC-American Express Championship] was a good tournament. He drove the ball so well there. He's likely to have more of that this year. Physically, he's really good; mentally, he's really good. Last year was a tough year regardless how good he played, but the more time passes by, the easier it is."
The FedEx Cup has Woods' attention, but the season-ending points race will not affect his overall schedule much, and neither will the move of the Players to May. The same old standbys should get the Friday night commitment call from agent Mark Steinberg, while the baby's arrival might cost some events the opportunity of becoming a Tiger Tournament. (Woods has not announced a due date, but there is speculation the birth will happen between the U.S. and British Opens.)
His season always is based around the majors, so whether Woods plays the Nissan Open at Riviera, adds Palm Beach Gardens or Tampa to his Florida swing, or plays the rescheduled Buick Open, will be determined by where his game is and how wife Elin is feeling. He has already taken heat for skipping the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, deflecting the criticism with statements on his Web site pledging support of the FedEx Cup, and announcing Elin's pregnancy.
With 12 majors, Woods is only six short of Jack Nicklaus' 18. There is speculation that having a family will change Woods' priorities, but those who know Tiger best just laugh at that. Nicklaus actually won all his professional majors as a father.
"When you look at Nicklaus, I'd say [having a family] didn't do anything but help him," Haney said. "I don't see why it would be any different with Tiger. He's obviously very excited looking forward to that, looking forward to his golf, and hopefully it will be another good year."
At a golf course opening in North Palm Beach, Nicklaus acknowledged that his new neighbor -- Woods docks his boat near the Golden Bear's compound -- will probably be an improved Tiger. "Tiger's life will change, but I think for the better," Nicklaus said. "He'll have family to share his life. That was great for me to be able to share it with my family. I wouldn't trade anything I've done with my kids, my family, the skiing and my other interests for another victory."
Five weeks have passed since Woods' last tournament, and he has been using the time to attend to various activities across the country. He came down from the slopes long enough to win the Target World Challenge, returning to the Rockies after that victory. He spent his 31st birthday, Dec. 30, in San Diego with friends, then flew to Orlando after the new year began for a session with Haney and pal Notah Begay III at Isleworth. He followed that with a trip to Palm Beach County to check out his property on Jupiter Island, before returning to the mountains for more skiing.
Now that the rest and relaxation is over, he's ready for the Buick Invitational. "The thing is, his focus is always the same, that's the thing that's so neat," said Haney. "It doesn't matter what happened last year or what happened yesterday, Tiger always focuses on what he needs to do to improve. If he does that, everything else should take care of itself."
-- Additional reporting by Mark Soltau
All eyes are on Tiger Woods as he returns at Torrey Pines, writes Golf World's Tim Rosaforte.