- John Hawkins
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For all the noise made over Phil Mickelson's quest for a third consecutive major title last spring, Tiger Woods wasn't asked a single question about the same scenario during pre-tournament news conferences at Bay Hill and Doral. Woods, of course, has been there and done that -- he won back-to-back majors in 2000 en route to the so-called Tiger Slam, then did it again in 2002 -- but you're entitled to wonder why his friendship with Roger Federer is getting a lot more attention than his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus.
Better late than never, NBC weighed in with a piece on the superstar buddies during Saturday's telecast of the CA Championship. What the feaure didn't mention is that PGA Tour security refused to let Federer hang with Woods inside the ropes during his practice round the previous Wednesday. Tiger eventually overruled his watchdogs and Federer walked most of the back nine with his pal, but not before a few anxious moments -- sort of like Woods' 2007.
There is no such thing as a meaningless victory, even when you have 56 of them, but Tiger's comfortable triumph in Miami provided far more definition than most regular-season triumphs. Coming off two of the most notable self-imposed losses of his career, even the indomitable Woods could have found little value in taking a surge of negative mojo to Augusta National. His turnaround performance at Doral not only reversed the momentum, it provided a strong case to the point of caddie Steve Williams, who thinks Tiger is a better player now than in 2000 because he has a greater working knowledge of his golf swing.
"A much better understanding of the mechanics," Williams says, "When things aren't going right, he knows why, and that allows him to get things turned around much quicker."
To gain a deeper perspective, let us return to last month's WGC-Accenture Match Play, where Nick O'Hern ousted Woods in the third round. The imperishable image from that week will always be Tiger missing from four feet on the first extra hole, a putt that would have moved him into the quarterfinals, but there were ball-striking issues before the O'Hern loss that weren't totally resolved, which led to several off-the-planet tee shots and a 4-down deficit seven holes into the match.
After beating Tim Clark in the second round, Woods spent an inordinate amount of time on the practice range grinding over his takeaway with swing coach Hank Haney. More than once, Haney physically guided Tiger's arms from the middle of the backswing to the top in an attempt to promote a slightly more open clubface. For a player who can generate clubhead speed in excess of 125 mph, the open/shut factor can mean everything in terms of controlling trajectory.
It all made for quite a scene, as several hundred people stuck around just to watch Woods, the only player on the practice ground, for well over an hour. He spent 45 minutes polishing his short game -- mostly on quick-stop chips from about 25 yards -- drawing gasps and applause when he knocked one in the hole. You would have sworn he would be sharp the next day, but after a week of navigable mountain breezes and temperatures in the 80s, Friday was 30 degrees chillier, the gusts perhaps three clubs mightier.
Tiger clearly wasn't ready for such extremes. Unable to control his ball flight on the front nine, most of which played into the wind, he double-bogeyed the fourth and sixth, then conceded the par-4 seventh after failing to put the ball in play. With the zephyr at his back, Tiger fought back to all-square, then hit a poor 3-iron into the par-5 17th and lost the hole to O'Hern's birdie. After the short miss in overtime, Woods, playing into the fan again, overhooked his 6-iron approach at No. 2, leaving himself a chip similar to those he had spent forever hitting the previous afternoon.
This one stopped 15 feet shy of the pin. Tiger failed to save par and was on his way back to Orlando, his frustration evident when he claimed the first and second greens had been cut since he played them earlier that afternoon. Tournament officials quickly announced that no such mowing had occurred.
In truth, Woods' woes in Arizona weren't only about trajectory and putting. "I had a two-way miss going," he summarized. "I hit it right because I was hitting it left -- if you're missing [to one side] you can play off it, but I had the combo thing going today. The only thing that saved me was that the holes coming in were downwind."
That same problem haunted Woods when he returned to action at Bay Hill. In benign conditions Thursday, he fired a stellar 64 and had a share of the first-round lead, but in a heartier breeze Friday, he snapped his drive at the par-5 sixth, a shot so poor that it jarred his confidence and diminished his faith in a right-to-left flight. Tiger spent much of the next two days in the right rough and was particularly imprecise with his short irons. Still, he sat just one stroke off the lead before a horrid three-putt Sunday at the 11th -- the pulled three-foot comebacker was as bad a stroke as you'll ever see Woods make.
Trailing by three with seven to play, Tiger trudged to the finish like a man who had lost all hope. "When you play to win every time, [then] you go out there and know you're out of it," Haney says, "it can be hard to maintain the intensity." Some would call it quitting, but Woods left Bay Hill that afternoon knowing he wasn't even close to Masters-ready. His only airtight round among the seven he had played in the two tournaments had come in a light wind. The harder it blew, the further off-line it flew.
In years past Haney might have been summoned to Isleworth that evening, but the two had spent the previous Monday and Tuesday together working on a plan leading up to the first week of April. On the second of those afternoons, Tiger piled up 17 birdies in 36 holes against Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, a scratch player, to take some serious cash off the 1996 Cy Young winner. Bay Hill was discouraging, but it wasn't a disaster.
The day after his final-round 76, Woods and Haney spoke on the phone three times. "There wasn't any urgency or panic," the coach says. "The one thing I've realized while being around Tiger so much is that he's human. He does things you absolutely marvel over, but there are times when he faces the same situations we all face. Doubt, a lack of trust. Some days don't come as easy, and he really needs to bear down. Tiger is really good at bearing down."
When Woods and Haney discuss fixes, it isn't uncommon for Tiger to recall a tournament when things were working well, then try to replicate the nuances of that swing. Haney might study a videotape of that week, then go over his notes and offer suggestions -- the most recent examples of that process come from the 2006 WGC-American Express Championship and 2005 Masters. From the American Express victory, Haney saw Woods positioning his club perfectly at the top, avoiding the upright move and shut face that might have lingered from his years of working with Butch Harmon.
In ending a 34-month majorless drought at the 2005 Masters, Tiger's primary swing thought had been to stay behind the golf ball. "It's very typical for anyone who has been playing a lot in the wind to hang on your left side," Haney explains. "You want to hit it low by [dictating] what you do in your downswing, not how you take the club back." There was plenty of breeze to mess with Woods at Doral, and though NBC analyst Johnny Miller made mention of both a shut face and early forward movement during separate slow-motion segments, Tiger hit 41 of 54 greens -- by far the most in the field -- while building a four-stroke lead after three rounds.
Not for nothing, the world's best player and his once-maligned swing coach are geniuses once again. It's funny how that comes and goes. "This may sound crazy, but in golf, the only way you can keep things the same is to constantly keep changing," Haney adds. "You may feel like you're taking the club too far inside one day, then the next day, that same position feels like it's not inside enough. Tiger has gotten very good at staying one step ahead of that. You see him hitting a lot of different shots on the practice range because he's running through his checklist, figuring out what's easy to do and what's difficult, what's working and what's not."
Indeed, Woods had fully restored his faith in the ability to hit an educated draw by last Wednesday. While Williams made the first of several trips to the Nike equipment trailer with Tiger's driver, the 12-time major champion striped a 10-minute stretch of 3-woods into a stiff south Florida breeze, each on a more pronounced right-to-left path than usual, all of which landed within a 15-yard radius down by the Jim McLean Golf School. When he paused to wipe his brow, Tiger was asked if he would be visiting Augusta National for a pre-Masters site inspection.
"No need to," he replied. "They haven't made any changes this year."
"Not even for a casual round?" said the questioner. "I mean, a lot of guys would go just for fun."
If there's one thing Tiger Woods can do better than hit a golf ball, it's deliver a line. "Maybe that's why a lot of guys don't have coats," he quipped, suggesting that a green jacket is worth every minute you put into getting one.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine
Tiger Woods' quest for a third major title in a row hasn't drawn much attention -- and that's just the way he likes it.