Tuesday, June 10

Tiger slumping? A laughable notion

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- To Tiger Woods' credit, he answered the questions about slumps Tuesday with a straight face.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods isn't worried that he's not atop the money list, he's squarely focused on one goal: winning the U.S. Open.

He began the year in the care of physical therapists, rehabbing after knee surgery. He has played only seven tournaments, three fewer than he has played coming into the U.S. Open in any of his previous six full seasons on the PGA Tour.

Those are the reasons why, for the first time since 1999, he is not the leading the money list coming into the Open. He has plummeted, plunged, free-fallen, nose-dived all the way to -- gasp! -- third. Well, stop the presses and get me a rewrite.

Back here in the real world, the man who has won two of the last three Opens arrived at Olympia Fields Country Club with three victories in 2003 (San Diego, Match Play, Bay Hill) and $3,287,250 in earnings. When he steps onto the 10th tee Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET in the traditional defending champion's group (U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes and British Open winner Ernie Els), Woods will be pleased with the state of his game.

"I don't think I've ever been in a slump, no," Woods said. "I think my overall career has been pretty good. Ever since I came out of the womb and started playing golf, I've had a pretty good career."

That line elicited the laughter that he intended. On a more serious note, Woods said his regular checkup with swing doctor Butch Harmon last week went well. In fact, Woods said his ball-striking is almost as good as when he won the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, a record for a major championship.

"It's close to that," he said. "Not quite -- I don't hit the ball as long as I did then, with my shorter irons, that's for sure, because I don't go at it as hard. Everything else is about the same. ... As far as the comfort and the confidence, it's very close."

That should calm the nerves of followers concerned that he hasn't won since March, when he ignored food poisoning and won his fourth consecutive Bay Hill by a door-slamming 11 strokes.

At the Players, one week later, his abs still sore from the retching, Woods remained in contention until a double bogey on the fourth hole Sunday, and tied for 11th. At The Masters, he made the cut on the number, then fought back into contention until a double bogey on the third hole Sunday sent him toward a tie for 15th.

At the Deutsche Bank-SAP tournament last month near Hamburg, Germany, where disease left the greens looking like a teenager trying to grow a beard, Woods finished tied for 29th. At Memorial two weeks ago, Woods got caught on the course Saturday in a terrific storm, which lifted a few shingles off of his game. His third-round 76 knocked him out of contention.

The bounce-back round of 65 on Sunday, which lifted him into a tie for fourth, escaped notice.

"I didn't make any putts over in Germany," Woods said. "If you saw the greens, you'd understand. And then at Memorial, I hit the ball just as good and the greens were perfect, and I made some putts. I just unfortunately had that little block of nine holes where I went for wads."

Golf is a game of adjustments, and Woods is more adept than most at making them. In addition to reacquainting himself with a working left knee, he also spent a few rounds figuring out his new Nike ball -- relax, it's a prototype, not yet on the market.

"This ball is better in the crosswinds than my previous ball," Woods said. He explained how he aimed away from his target in order to play the wind, and how the new ball is more wind-resistant. "You can be more aggressive and go at some of these flags," Woods said. 'I started to get a pretty good hold at that at Memorial, and I started doing that a little better on Sunday. I said, you know what, just trust the ball."

Woods said that his game is good. Mike Weir, the only golfer with a chance to win the Grand Slam, is fighting an ear infection that makes him sound like Chuckie on The Rugrats. Davis Love III must regain his focus after the suicide last month of his brother-in-law. Phil Mickelson can't drive it straight. That leaves, among the top contenders, Kenny Perry, winner of his last two starts, and Vijay Singh, who is looking for the third leg of a career Grand Slam.

The only thing Woods isn't interested in winning this week is a piece of the Milwaukee Bucks. He knocked down rumors that he will be part of a group assembled by Michael Jordan to buy the NBA team. "No truth ... from my end," he said. "I don't know about his end, but from my end."

Woods may not have won in three months, and double bogeys have been sprouting like weeds in his weekly garden of birdies, but he believes he is one victory away from a great year.

"You know what?" Woods asked. "If you can win one major, you've had a great year. And that's always been my goal, and that's my goal this week."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

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