Woods looks to end Nissan drought

Updated: February 14, 2006, 6:33 PM ET
By Brian Wacker | GolfDigest.com

The last time Tiger Woods got off to a start like this -- winning his first two events -- he went on to have one of the greatest seasons in the history of golf with nine wins, including three majors, in 2000. The one tournament he didn't win at the start of that season, or in any other before or since? The Nissan Open, held this week at Riviera. Call me crazy, but I don't think history will repeat itself.

Who's hot

The discussion of who's hot starts -- and pretty much ends -- with No. 1. Tiger didn't even play his best golf in his playoff wins over Ernie Els in Dubai and Jose Maria Olazabal in La Jolla. The new 30-something Tiger beat them both with pars, as Els and Olazabal crumbled under the pressure the way players used to against the "old" 20-something Tiger.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward, and that's what we're seeing with Woods right now with his swing changes having fully taken hold. Remember when everyone thought he was going through a "slump" in 1998 and '99? Well, we saw what happened then, and we're seeing it again. And Tiger's enjoying every second of it.

"Anybody can win when they are playing well. It's when you have an opportunity to have to fix it, which I did, turn it around, and somehow end up on top," Tiger said after his win over Els two weeks ago. "Very similar to how I ended up at Augusta last year. I played 16, 17 and 18 terribly and hit my two best shots all week in the playoff.

"My list of things I needed to work on is a lot shorter than it was last year at the same time. And I just felt like I didn't have this ability at this time last year to turn things around, because I had so many things to try and work on to get things to where I could do that, and my understanding of my new swing. But after another year of experience with it, I had that ability now to turn things around because I have an understanding of ball flight and my swing and the mechanics that Hank has been trying to teach me."

Getting back to the Nissan, this is where Woods, who has a 9-1 career playoff record, suffered his only sudden-death defeat when he lost to Billy Mayfair in 1998 (at Valencia Country Club). A year later, he finished runner-up to Els.

Els, by the way, is finally making his '06 PGA Tour debut this week. It'll be interesting to see how the less-traveled South African fares this season. Els says his left knee, which he had surgery on last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, still bothers him a little.

In Els' absence, another South African -- Rory Sabbatini -- has arguably been the tour's best player not to have won this season. Sabbatini is fifth on the money list and is coming off a runner-up showing at Pebble Beach, his second such finish of the season. He also finished second at the Sony Open in Hawaii last month. Don't be surprised if Sabbatini breaks through this week for his first victory on tour since 2003. He finished in a tie for second here in 2002, with four rounds in the 60s, and posted top-15 finishes in 2000 and '04. And though Sabbatini's not the most accurate player off the tee, he is one of the game's best ball strikers -- something that will serve him well at tree-lined Riviera with its small and tricky greens.

Who's not

Three players in particular stand out to me, each for different reasons, but each for the same reason: They're not playing as well as they, or anyone else, expected.

First, there's No. 2 -- better known as Vijay Singh, in case you'd forgotten. The rest of us have -- because although Singh does have three top-10 finishes in '06, he's not the same player he was last year, and is certainly not the same player as the one who won nine times in '04.

Yes, Singh tied for seventh at Pebble Beach, but he backdoored his way into that top-10 with a final-round 68 that was fueled by a birdie-eagle finish. Here's what's so frightening about Singh's season: He's sixth on tour in greens in regulation and 12th in proximity to the hole (i.e. the number of feet away from the hole the ball comes to rest on a player's approach shot). To me, that says Singh continues to miss a lot of putts. To Vijay, it says frustration.

Second, I have to admit that I didn't think rookie Bill Haas would struggle as much as he has, not after the way he gutted out the final round of Q-School last year.

It's a long season, but it must feel really long to Haas at this point. He shot an opening-round 75 at Pebble Beach and went on to miss his second cut in a row. Afterward, he found a spot in the shade and sat on a log with his head down.

Haas does have the game to play well on tour, but if there's one thing he'll need to improve on, it's his putting. It nearly cost him a tour card at Q-School, and right now it's costing him money.

The third player is Charles Howell III. The one word that immediately comes to mind when thinking about how he has played this year: awful.

Howell's best finish in four starts is a T-39 at the Buick. This after a year in which he had a half-dozen top-10s and seven finishes in the top 25. Like a lot of players of his generation, Howell still seems to be struggling with the "feel" aspect of the game. Other players have proved you can hit driver-wedge and be successful, but it's learning how to not hit every club at full speed that separates guys like J.B. Holmes from Howell.

Item that may interest only me

John Daly's reality show, "The Daly Planet," is one of the more entertaining reality shows I've seen. But Daly's name on the Hall of Fame ballot? Since when does seven worldwide wins and two majors get you on any HOF ballot? And unlike other sports (see: the NFL, which has a bylaw that basically states you can't consider a guy's off-the-field actions when voting), there's something that doesn't sit right when a guy on golf's HOF ballot has walked off the course midtournament on more than one occasion. The latest episode of that came at TPC-Scottsdale, where Daly hightailed it for the parking lot after a 40 on his first nine of the second round.

Pick to win

As I said, Tiger's history of futility in Los Angeles is, well, history. Woods will end his 0-for-10 drought at the Nissan and go on to match the season he had in 2000.

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