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They're Two of a Kind

Tiger's Fans Undaunted as the Bogeys Pile Up

August 17, 2003|THOMAS BONK

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — They lined up four-deep on either side of green metal barriers at Oak Hill Country Club and waited for Tiger Woods to pass by on his way to the parking lot.

Nearly an hour after he finished his third-round 73 Saturday afternoon, Woods emerged from the locker room and the crowd began cheering and called his name.

Woods acknowledged the fans with a warm smile. He never stopped walking, surrounded by four security guards and two uniformed policemen.

Tiger was carrying a large, empty cardboard box so no one would expect him to stop to sign autographs. This proved that although Tiger may have momentarily lost his game, he still hasn't lost his touch.

The hatchback of his blue sport utility vehicle was open and Tiger tossed the box inside, then climbed behind the wheel, rolled up the darkly tinted windows and sped off toward an uncertain future.

It didn't seem to matter to anyone who had stood there and waited patiently for Woods that he had just shot his third consecutive over-par round.

Or that he had no chance at the PGA Championship.

Or that he would end the year without a major title for the first time in five years.

Or that his streak of majors without winning has reached six.

To Tiger fans everywhere, even those who gathered under the leafy oaks near the Tudor clubhouse here at Oak Hill, the message was simple:

Keep the faith. Hold that Tiger. Even if it may appear that Tiger himself has lost his grip a little bit, it's not as if he's going anywhere, at least not anywhere bad.

Woods is still around, although he is not a factor at the PGA Championship. That happens from time to time, Woods says. Only not to him, at least not very often.

This is how it went for Woods this weekend as he went in search of his ninth major title and found roadblocks wherever he looked. He said he almost expected that whatever could go wrong would go wrong. This weekend, it's been Tiger's Law.

He hits short of the green and the ball is in a hole. He thinks he's safely in a bunker and the ball is on the downslope instead. He hits the green and the ball kicks off into the rough.

This is what happens when you're not firing on all cylinders, which is probably why Tiger looked so comfortable as he sped out of the parking lot Saturday afternoon.

It was the first time all day that he was in the driver's seat.

You have to give Woods credit, because he has handled his discomfort with skill and grace. When he was unhappy in times past, he fired his caddie and his agent and his advisor and his mental coach.

Maybe Woods has grown up and learned to face his problems head-on instead of trying to push them aside.

Meanwhile, for everyone else, the Tiger watch continues. It's difficult to measure his success when he doesn't contend in majors. He has won four tournaments this year, but when he comes up empty four times in the four majors, that's simply not normal. And, with all signs pointing toward a resurgence here at Oak Hill, Woods confounds the logic and spins oddly in the opposite direction.

In fact, his play this weekend could equal a lowlight -- the last time he shot four consecutive rounds over par was the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. Woods called that setup unfair. He says Oak Hill is the hardest, fairest layout he has seen.

Woods spent at least 30 minutes with a small group of reporters in front of his locker after his round, calmly discussing the events, wishing they could have been different, but resigned that they didn't turn out that way.

Three days, four birdies. These are not typical Tiger numbers. How long this trend continues we don't know, but it can't last any longer than one more round in major championships this year.

Woods is resigned to the fact that he's going to be blanked in the majors this year, but that doesn't mean he's happy about it. He says golf doesn't owe anybody anything and all he can do is keep trying to play better.

Of course, that wouldn't have been hard to do this week, because the 85th PGA Championship will not be recorded as one of Tiger's finest moments.

Tell that to the fans, such as the family just outside the front gates with the "Tiger Watch" signs stuck in their front yard. The kid wearing the "I Luv Tiger" T-shirt and the thousands who walked outside the ropes to follow Woods believe they have chosen their hero wisely.

Sometimes Tiger wins, sometimes Tiger loses, and maybe Tiger isn't going anywhere in the majors this year. He is tied for 43rd; his lowest finish in a major as a pro is a tie for 29th. Tiger is wise to the situation. He even has a plan. It's called next year.

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