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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON GOLF

No-win Situation

Four Tournaments, No Victories. Only for One Golfer Could That Be Considered a Slump, and Tiger Woods Is Growing Tired of Living Up to the Expectations Fostered by His Incredible Nine Tour Victories Last Year

February 22, 2001|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Know how to stop Tiger Woods' smile in mid-megawatt? Mention the S-word. Ask him if he's in a slump.

Or drop the E-word on him. Talk about expectations that he should win every week. Or better yet, because he's Tiger Woods, twice a week.

The questioning runs along this line:

"Tiger, you've played four tournaments this year and you haven't won yet. What is the problem, dude?"

Woods states his case:

"It's just four tournaments."

So here is one more question: How many does it take to make a slump? Four sound like enough for us.

Besides, this kind of scrutiny goes with the territory. You win 17 times in two years, you win three majors in one year, you raise the bar so high everybody else has to take up the pole vault, then you might come close to understanding Tiger's trauma.

It's no secret that Tiger is a victim of his own success. It's also no secret that Woods really isn't playing all that much worse than last year at this time--his stroke average, 68.88, is exactly the same--but the perception is that he's mired in the slump of his career.

Among his peers, there seems to have been a shift regarding his "invincibility."

"When you can play as well as he did last year and can putt even better, it's unbelievable," Jesper Parnevik said. "[Putting] is the difference this year. What Tiger did last year was as good as it gets, let's put it that way.

"But this year, everybody is not talking Tiger, thinking Tiger right now. Everybody is much more concerned about our own games, I think."

In other words, they're not looking over their shoulders. Davis Love III says Woods is just one of the guys now. He may be one of the better guys, but he's got company.

"I am sure if Phil [Mickelson] or I or Tiger or Frank Lickliter walks through the locker room, other guys are going to say, 'Hey, that guy's playing pretty good' or if their name pops up on a leaderboard they'll say, 'Here he goes again.'

"There has always been a guy that you feel has a better chance to win than other guys. Obviously, Tiger is the guy to watch, but right now, Phil Mickelson may be more of a guy to watch."

And so we arrive at the Nissan Open at storied Riviera Country Club, where Woods will try to pick himself up off the kikuyu and spend the next four days trying to avoid the S-stuff, dodge the E-word and, as he often says, "just get a W."

This is the tournament that gave Woods his first sponsor's exemption into a professional event, which is one of the biggest reasons that he has played it each of the five full years he has been a pro. This is also a tournament in which Woods has played well, but has not won.

He missed the cut as a 16-year-old amateur in 1992, then missed it again in 1993.

He tied for 20th in 1997, when Nick Faldo won; lost to Billy Mayfair in a playoff in the 1998 event at Valencia, tied for second with Love and Ted Tryba when Ernie Els won in 1999, then tied for 18th last year in the rain when Kirk Triplett won.

"I've come close," Woods said. "I haven't played that many years here. Give me 10 more years."

Sorry, Tiger, but you only get four more days.

Of course, that isn't fair, but the longer Woods goes without winning, the more the story line develops.

His worst finish was a tie for 13th at Pebble Beach. In his last tournament, he was fourth, 17 under par, at Torrey Pines, missing the three-way playoff by two shots.

However, there are other, troubling statistics. Although Woods is a healthy seventh in driving distance at 290.6 yards, he is 91st in hitting fairways. He is also 126th in putting. Last year, he finished second to Brad Faxon.

He is averaging 29.69 putts a round this year, 132nd on the PGA Tour. Last year, he was 36th at 28.70.

"I did play well last year," he said. "I had a wonderful year and I won 13 times around the world, which is not too bad. This year, I just haven't won in four starts.

"That's not, in my opinion, a slump. Four starts. Now, if I went four years without winning, I think that's more of a slump.

"It's just four tournaments. It's not like I haven't won in four years. Everyone goes through stretches like that. It's no big deal. And the key is to keep giving yourself opportunities. Last year, I gave myself a number of chances. I didn't win on a number of occasions, but I also won my share."

Woods maintains, "I'm not that far away. I shot 17 under two weeks ago. It's not like I'm playing terrible."

He emphasizes that his scoring average is the same as it was a year ago at the same time. But at this time last year, he had won twice on his way to a nine-victory season.

So what's the difference?

"All it is is luck of the draw," Woods said. "To be honest with you, I never should have won that tournament at Pebble last year. You know, seven strokes down with seven to go. Even if I make a few birdies, I shouldn't win the tournament.

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