Tiger reaches milestone, but finds more questions

Updated: January 1, 2006, 12:08 PM ET
By Jaime Diaz | Golf Digest

On Dec. 30, Tiger Woods will turn 30.

With a tick of the clock, all of those freeze-framed uppercuts from the mid-'90s at Sawgrass, Pumpkin Ridge and Augusta so emblematic of an ageless Boy Wonder move to the nostalgia file. Golf -- and life -- squeeze in that much closer to take their toll. Growing heavier is a living legend, front-loaded by the epic 2000 achievements that will be the measure for all future seasons. From a certain perspective, "Tiger Woods is 30" can sound as wistful as "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

Of course, it's a safe bet that as exalted as his still relatively brief past is, Tiger Woods ain't living in it. To him, 30 isn't the end of anything but his 20s. He's well aware that given the normal career arcs of the game's greatest players, it's more of a beginning.

Tiger Woods
At St. Andrews, Woods became the first player in history to reach double-digit major championship victories before his 30th birthday.

"I've still got a long way to go with the stuff I'm working on," Woods said matter-of-factly in a late-season interview, a line he has uttered since he was 13. "A lot of room to grow and improve. So I feel like my best years are still ahead of me."

As we ponder what's next in 2006, the central questions again revolve around Woods. Will he get better or worse? Will the 13 victories in major championships keep mounting? How much will his competition or fate slow him down? Will he decide to revamp his game yet again?

As Woods likes to say, nothing is given. Now married, considering having children, worried about his ailing 73-year-old father, still occasionally bothered by a tricky left knee and troublesome back, his life is more complicated than it was at 21 or 24, when he won majors by double digits. He knows it's possible he could be more supernova than Old Man River, more Bobby Jones than Jack Nicklaus, who took 28 seasons to win his 20 majors. But whatever happens, Woods has lived up to the line he intoned on a commercial: "My life is about never settling."

It was never more true than in 2005. At the beginning of the year, Woods' career momentum had stalled. He hadn't won a major since the 2002 U.S. Open, hadn't earned an official stroke-play victory in 15 months. Vijay Singh had supplanted him as No. 1 in the world, Phil Mickelson had won his first major, and the so-called Young Guns were lurking. Woods was in the midst of swing changes with new coach Hank Haney that had produced inconsistent results, particularly with the driver. Woods was facing more negativity, second-guessing and unknowns than he ever had. Then, through stubborn commitment to a vision perhaps only he and Haney could see, he turned everything around and recaptured his domination and his aura.

The moment of truth occurred on Sunday at the Masters, which might go down as the most important major of Woods' career. Leading by two strokes over Chris DiMarco after an operatic chip-in on the 16th, Woods finished with two shockingly shaky bogeys. Woods had never thrown away a major, and to do so at such a crucial juncture portended devastating effects. Yet in sudden death on Augusta's demanding 18th hole, he somehow gathered himself to produce two near-perfect shots and a walk-off putt.

Tiger Woods might be one of the exceptions to the conventional wisdom that most professional golfers don't hit their peak until their early 30s (or later). Woods, who is turning 30 on Dec. 30, started his run of 10 pro major championships at age 21. Since that breakthrough in 1997, the average age of the other 20 major winners at the time of their victories has been 33.8:
Player Major victory Age
Tiger Woods 1997 Masters 21
Tiger Woods 1999 PGA 23
Tiger Woods 2000 U.S. Open 24
Tiger Woods 2000 British Open 24
Tiger Woods 2000 PGA 24
Tiger Woods 2001 Masters 25
Tiger Woods 2002 U.S. Open 26
Tiger Woods 2005 Masters 29
Tiger Woods 2005 British Open 29
Vijay Singh 1998 PGA 35
Vijay Singh 2000 Masters 37
Vijay Singh 2004 PGA 41
Ernie Els 1997 U.S. Open 27
Ernie Els 2002 British Open 32
Mark O'Meara 1998 Masters 41
Mark O'Meara 1998 British Open 41
Retief Goosen 2001 U.S. Open 32
Retief Goosen 2004 U.S. Open 35
Phil Mickelson 2004 Masters 33
Phil Mickelson 2005 PGA 35
Justin Leonard 1997 British Open 25
Davis Love III 1997 PGA 33
Lee Janzen 1998 U.S. Open 33
Jose Maria Olazabal 1998 Masters 33
Payne Stewart 1999 U.S. Open 42
Paul Lawrie 1995 British Open 30
David Duval 2001 British Open 29
David Toms 2001 PGA 34
Rich Beem 2002 PGA 31
Mike Weir 2003 Masters 32
Jim Furyk 2003 U.S. Open 33
Ben Curtis 2003 British Open 26
Shaun Micheel 2003 PGA 34
Todd Hamilton 2004 British Open 38
Michael Campbell 2005 U.S. Open 36

"That was so big for me -- in here," he says, tapping his chest. "Because I hadn't battled down the stretch in a major with the swing changes I had made with Hank. You've got to put yourself in the biggest arena and see what happens. At Augusta, I blew it on 17 and 18, and that was after hitting a terrible tee shot on 16. Then in the playoff, I got recommitted and made my two best swings of the day. Huge."

Back ahead of Nicklaus' record major pace, Woods displayed greater control of his swing in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, only to be undone by poor putting. After a five-stroke victory in the British Open at St. Andrews, a poor start and putting lapses were enough to undermine Woods in the PGA at Baltusrol. His 2005 record in the majors: first, second, first, tied for fourth. Four strokes from the Grand Slam.

Technically oriented, Woods has always considered improved swing mechanics as the most direct route to progress. When he sensed a staleness in his game in 2003, the possibility of reaching another level of skill was enough to set him on a new course. Yet despite months in which Woods played the most erratic golf of his professional career, he remained stoic and never wavered.

"It's never easy taking swing changes into competition," he says. "You have to be prepared and understand that you're going to fail. And it's OK to fail. The hardest thing is picking yourself up when you get knocked down. But to make the changes, you've got to keep getting up and realize that you have to get worse to get better."

Gradually, Woods found ways to stay on his feet.

"The biggest thing I learned this year was how to fix my swing during a round," he says. "Last year, because the swing was still new, I didn't know how to fix it. I'd hit a certain shot, good or bad, but I didn't know how I did it. This year, from the ball flight, from the depth and shape and direction of my divots, I know how to fix it. It's more reliable than feel, because when you're changing something, what you think you're doing is not always what you're actually doing. I might hit a shot that turns out all right, but if I look at the flight, I can tell, 'OK, that's not it. I've got to go back and work on this.' And then you can get it back. So when I'm under the gun and might be struggling that day or hit a couple of bad shots, I can rectify it and get back on course. That was a major breakthrough."

During seemingly lost moments, Woods took comfort in knowing he had done it all before.

"I was not going to change back, because one of the things I've done throughout my career is to have a game plan for the future and stick to it," he said. "It's not necessarily that I'm going to make these changes to be ready for tomorrow. I'm making these changes to be ready for sometime in six months, or a year from now. So you have to have a big-picture view of it. And trust me, that wasn't always easy for me to understand. But it was something my dad really tried to instill when I was a kid. He'd say, 'Look at the big picture, son. You shot 77 today, but was there something you did better than your last round when you shot 72?' 'Well, yeah, I did this better, which was different.' 'Very good. That's a step in the right direction.' So you're always growing toward something bigger."

Regaining the power advantage

Adding urgency to Woods' conviction was evidence that he not only had lost his advantage over the field in the area in which he had established the most dominance -- power -- but was actually being passed. After never ranking worse than third on the PGA Tour in driving distance the first five years of his pro career, from 2002 to 2004 Woods dropped to sixth, 11th and ninth.

Getting closer to his competition got Woods' attention after he realized that the modern professional game was clearly rewarding length and power more than ever before. As technological advances in clubs and the golf ball have produced a dramatic jump in distance, the world's highest ranked players -- Woods, Singh, Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen -- have all been long drivers with excellent short games, leaving behind more-accurate medium-length hitters.

The bombers have established their advantage most clearly on the par 5s, where all rank near the top in the frequency of going for the green in two, and in average score. They also tend to play tight par 4s more aggressively, generally preferring to hit driver as close as possible to the green in the belief they'll have a better chance of stopping the ball close to the flag with a wedge or short iron from the rough than with a middle iron from the fairway.

How many more majors for Tiger?

Tiger Woods won 10 majors in his 20s. How many will he win in his 30s? Vote now!

Along with Haney-directed changes that have given him a fuller backswing and more clubhead speed, Woods regained length by changing his driver to one with a 460-cubic-centimeter head and a longer and lighter shaft. He also switched to a hotter ball. Sure enough, in 2005, Woods was a statistical monster in the area of power. His career-high 316-yard driving-distance average ranked second on tour. On the par 5s, he led the tour in going for the green at a rate of 65 percent (he was successful 34 percent of the time, second on tour), and in scoring with an average of 4.5, making birdie or better a tour-best 53 percent of the time. Anecdotally, the message was slammed home when Woods reached the 372-yard 16th hole at Doral during his victorious shoot-out with Mickelson, the ball soaring over what seemed like the length of the Everglades.

"I had to get back to hitting the ball farther again," Woods says. "I didn't originally go along with the equipment changing everyone else was doing, and I got left behind. There were guys hitting the ball farther than me who I used to outdrive, no problem. My swing changes have given me some distance, and I got with the technology. My ball still spins more than anyone else's [Woods considers the ability to stop green-side shots quickly of primary importance to his game], so I've still got room in the golf ball [to hit it longer]. But as far as equipment, I'm pretty much with everyone else." The resulting style of play that he employs disturbs some purists, most of whom insist he achieved a higher level of ball striking in 2000. But Woods says that though he might be missing more fairways, his critics are missing the point.

"People are more critical of me because I'm playing more approaches from the rough," he says. "But it's a tradeoff that's worth it. I'm driving the ball farther, hitting more par 5s in two, trying to drive more par 4s, and I'm hitting the driver more often because I feel much more confident. It's going to lead to fewer fairways hit, but if they're solid drives that roll through into the first cut, I'm fine with that -- even in the deep stuff, if it was a good shot, because I've still got a shorter shot in. Of course, I don't like the shots I hit way off line that are just terrible shots. Those shots I can't live with. So I continue to refine."

Actually, the new game isn't really to Woods' taste. When it comes to what he considers pure golf, Woods is decidedly old school.

"I enjoy moving the ball and hitting different shots, and I think that's the way golf should be played," he says. "But the game has changed since I've been on tour. It's hard to make the ball move. You look at the old guys who are or were true shot makers, like when I played with Lee Trevino at Bighorn and he blew my mind with some of the shots he hit. Then you look on tour and you ask, 'Who's a true shot maker? Who actually maneuvers the ball or does something different with it?' And there really aren't that many, if any, out here anymore."

Woods says that if he ruled golf, he'd make some changes. "I'd like to see more spin added to the golf ball, so misses would be more pronounced and good shots more rewarded," he said. "Anytime you bring maneuverability back into the game of golf, it's going to favor the better players who understand how to control the golf ball. It still matters in firm conditions or in wind. I always like to shape something in there a little bit just because I'm giving myself a fatter area for playing a miss, because it's not a game of perfect. I'd eliminate the 60-degree wedge and set a 56-degree limit. For one, it would bring more feel back into the game. Because now guys lay up to exact yardages and hit nothing but full shots. Nobody hits half shots anymore. And it would make the short game around the green a lot harder. If guys didn't have a 60-degree or even a 64-degree wedge to save them, you wouldn't see them being as aggressive going into the greens, because they couldn't short-side themselves as much.

"It's all about keeping the skill factor. At the moment, equipment has brought everyone closer together. It's harder to separate from the field, without a doubt. It's a challenge."

'Little things I can do better'

More than ever, Woods will take on the challenge with attention to detail.

"I'm just always thinking about little things I can do better," he says. "Just puttering around, checking myself in the mirror, trying out an idea, going, 'Well, if I do this ... well, no, that's not going to work.' But I don't stop wondering, because I might hit on something."

Still, the game proved too vast to cover all of it in 2005. The cost of his commitment to his swing changes was short-game lapses. Statistically, and by his own account, his chipping, sand play and long putting were relatively poor. "There's no doubt about it, I didn't work on my short game that much," he said. "I worked on intermediate shots, trying to get my swing plane better and feel my release better, so from 40 yards out, I got a lot better. But from 30 yards and in, I didn't really practice, and I got worse. It cost me at Pinehurst and Baltusrol, but that was the choice I made. I had to work on so many different things in my full swing that weren't right yet, it wore all my concentration out."

Going into the 2006 season, Woods is devoting more time to practicing on and around the green. As for his full swing, he cautiously assesses his iron game as "almost there." Mastery of the driver remains the last piece in completing his vision. He is, after all, close.

"If you watch me hit balls at Isleworth when I've got it, you would understand," he says. "You'd go, 'Oh, wow, now I see.' But then I come out here [on tour] and hit it all over the place, and people say I'm making the wrong changes. But then I bring it out here occasionally, like at St. Andrews, and people get a glimpse. And it'll come out more and more and more."

Winning 21 of 57 'top tournaments'

Although his game was still prone to occasional misfires in 2005 -- he missed his first two 36-hole cuts since 1998 -- by the end of the year, Woods had once again created a chasm between his game and those of his closest pursuers.

Even during his drought in the majors, Woods' domination over the long term hasn't waned. Consider that of the last 57 of what the PGA Tour calls "top tournaments" -- the four majors, the three individual World Golf Championship events, the Tour Championship and the Players Championship -- Woods has won 21 of them. Singh, Mickelson, Goosen and Mike Weir have each won three, Els and David Toms have won two. No one else has more than one.

Going into 2006, it is Woods who clearly carries the most momentum. Singh, who will turn 43 in February, was stalled by a regressive putter. Mickelson became a multiple-major champion by capturing the PGA, but his overall results continued to be uneven. His still relatively handsy swing technique will continue to court inconsistency, as will a schedule that leaves long gaps of inactivity. Els will be closely scrutinized for the way his left knee and his psyche have healed. Even before his injury, Els' flat performance in the 2005 majors had left many doubting he was fully recovered from wrenching defeats at the 2004 Masters, British Open and PGA. Goosen had his moments, including defeating Woods in singles at the Presidents Cup, but until he can win more regularly and/or land another major, he remains the fifth wheel in the Big Five.

If a significant challenge to Woods isn't mounted by the usual group, it's hard to see who's got next. Respected and veteran grinders like Toms, DiMarco, Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington are capable of beating Woods, but only if they're playing their best and the world No. 1 isn't.

Most observers would have guessed that by now one or more of the 20-something generation behind Woods -- led by Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Luke Donald (see chart) -- would have emerged. Instead, they have given off a general air of deference, and all the more on the biggest occasions. Of players in their 20s, only Ben Curtis has won a major. Only Garcia (six), Scott (three) and Jonathan Byrd (two) have more than one PGA Tour victory. Whereas in the 1970s emerging stars like Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange and Jerry Pate all had at least three victories each by age 26, the current group of Young Guns simply hasn't gone off.

This being golf, the reasons are myriad. But here are five:

1. Older players are keeping the winning edge longer. The promise of the Champions Tour, along with the extra distance provided by high-tech equipment and the increased strength and flexibility gained by obligatory conditioning programs, has created a new PGA Tour species: the over-40 bully. Collectively, they keep stealing the young guys' lunch money. In the last 144 official events on the PGA Tour, 42 have been won by players 40 or older, compared to 33 by players in their 20s. "Week in and week out, the kids have more game," says Mark Calcavecchia, who won the Canadian Open in 2005 at 45. "But on my week, I've still got a high skill level, and that extra bit of experience can make the difference."

It's like the country song says, "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."

2. Short-game mediocrity. Until further notice, Garcia is a poor putter, Scott has a wooden short game, and Charles Howell's game lacks overall feel. Apparently, it's an extension of an emerging generational problem.

"Most of the short games I see in today's young players are fairly rudimentary, more manufactured and formatted than creative," says noted instructor Dean Reinmuth. "Growing up, most of them spent their time on the range focused on their ball striking, rather than out on the course learning how to invent shots. Those are the formative years, and the older you get, the harder it becomes to develop a good short game."

Calcavecchia traces the shortage of young wedge wizards to straighter full shots. "When I came up in the '80s, we used to hit a lot of foul balls, because if you made a bad swing with a wooden head and a balata ball, it was going sideways," he says. "You had to know how to get it up and down to survive. Now, because of the drivers and the ball, everybody pounds the crap out of it long and fairly straight and gets a short iron somewhere on the green. The guys who have grown up playing that style just never really had to learn how to scramble."

3. Soft course setups. A number of players and observers are bemoaning a dearth of firm, fast conditions at regular tour events. "If the ball stops where it lands -- on the fairway or on the green -- then the shape or height of the shot really doesn't matter," says Australian Geoff Ogilvy, 28, who had his first two top-10 finishes in the majors in 2005. "The result is that everyone hits the ball in basically the same place, and then it's just who holes the putts. But when the conditions are firm, it matters how the ball is coming in when it lands because it'll roll closer or farther away from the hole depending on the shot shape, especially in the wind. That's when the skill comes in, which is why the best players have their best chance to win at the majors.

"Basically, the golf we play nine out of 10 weeks is pretty much one-dimensional and doesn't create a really rounded golfer. It hurts the young guys the most, because it's kept us from developing all the tools. We have enough for most courses, but probably not the hardest setups. Which is reflected in our record as a group in the majors."

4. Size matters. For the most part, today's top young players are on the smallish side. Garcia, Howell and Trevor Immelman produce tremendous clubhead speed, but they have to squeeze every bit from their 160-pound frames to keep up with distance easily produced by naturally big guys like Singh, Els and Goosen. Scott, Ogilvy, Justin Rose and Sean O'Hair are tall but slender, without the kind of muscle that the once reed-thin Woods has put on. All four are plenty long, but not Woodsian, and the little they give up in distance means a lot.

"This is the first time in the history of the game that being long off the tee is a prerequisite to being No. 1 in the world," says Nick Price. "In the '90s, Nick Faldo and I were average-length hitters who both became No. 1, but if we were coming up now, it would be 'See ya.' I feel sad for the Luke Donald style of player, because I don't think he can ever get to No. 1 the way the game is played today."

5. More expectation and pressure. Unlike their predecessors, today's young players arrive in an atmosphere of increased hype, and most oppressively, with Woods' feats creating great expectations.

"Something changes once they enter the professional arena, all the more with the standard set by Tiger," says mental coach Dr. Joseph Parent. "They're expected to take over the tour, and they start believing they have to be perfect. They can get extremely tense and frustrated."

The once seemingly carefree Garcia has shown the strain through the years with a frightening case of compulsive regripping, a tendency to vent irrationally and painful short-putting woes, all before the age of 25. Immelman admits "calmness is a huge factor, the big thing for me to improve on." Says Ogilvy: "A lot of it comes down to belief and confidence. Because if you really believe in yourself, if you make a mistake, you believe that you're going to make up for it. But if the belief isn't there, it's 'Well, I have no chance now.' It comes more slowly than you'd like."

In self-defense, the young players seem to have given themselves a stress-relieving extension on the timetable. "It's not a young man's game, necessarily," Rose says evenly. "I think we're all on schedule."

For all their youth, that type of sober reaction has given this group an almost passive profile. When Scott, whose record in majors has been spotty at best, finished tied for 28th at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, he called it "a positive experience." It was the kind of reaction Lanny Wadkins was talking about when he asserted, "I just don't see that real hard edge like Tiger has."

Two possible exceptions

Two who might have that edge are O'Hair and Ryan Moore.

Much has been written about O'Hair's difficult relationship with his now-estranged father, Marc, who admits he drove his son relentlessly. But teacher David Leadbetter, for one, thinks it might have given the 23-year-old, who finished 2005 with a victory and more than $2 million in earnings, a head start over his counterparts in attaining mental toughness.

"From a certain perspective, you might say what Sean went through with his dad got him to where he is right now," says Leadbetter. "There is something to be said for a harder life. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but for Sean it had some beneficial effects. He has a tremendous hunger and love for the game, and he wants badly to get better. He gets excited about trying new things, and I tell him we're going to work very slowly, we aren't going to make major changes. Because he is a hell of a ball-striker. He really flushes it."

Moore, also 23, appears to be the classic lone wolf, temperamentally suited to dominate what Johnny Miller has called the tour's "thoroughbred sheep."

Out of a Pacific Northwest town whose very name -- Puyallup, pronounced "pew-ALL-up" -- suggests self-sufficiency, Moore has a self-taught swing with a few unorthodox positions. Rather than carefully reading his putts, picking a specific aim point, Moore says he determines the general break and steps up and "feels" the putt. "There's no such thing as a perfect place to hit a putt," he says. "You can hit a putt five places and have it go in." He made a lot of them in 2004, when he won the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links, Western Amateur and NCAA Championship. After turning professional in June 2005, he earned enough official money to become only the fourth player in history to leave college and earn a fully exempt PGA Tour card in the same year.

"I've always been a little different -- always will be," says Moore. "My swing is my swing. It fits me. It works for me. I'm confident in it. And I see absolutely no reason to change it. I'm not constantly thinking mechanics. I've seen so much of that I'm going to avoid it at all costs."

Having won at every level at a rate that compares favorably to Woods' and Mickelson's junior and amateur records, Moore is not awed by the prospect of doing the same thing as a pro. "No matter what level you're at, winning golf tournaments pretty much takes the same thing," he says. "Experience is great, but if you're good, you're good."

Certainly, Moore's self-assurance is Tiger-like. But if we've learned anything, it's that comparisons to Woods don't really apply.

"They're silly, because they just point out how phenomenally advanced Tiger was, that he was able to find the right recipe very early on," says Leadbetter. "It's a complex, almost mysterious thing. It's the physical game, but there are so many other elements. And maybe the key thing is how people figure their own path. See what works for them, and find it. And accept that every timetable is different. That takes maturity, and that's why it's still a game where you reach your prime in your 30s."

The good news for the game, and the bad news for his challengers, is that Woods is just entering them.

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