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COMMENTARY

For Tiger Woods, It's Lull Before Next Storm

June 22, 2003|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

At Olympia Fields, Tiger Woods took another body blow from golf. For the fourth consecutive major, he entered the weekend in contention. And for the fourth time in a row, he failed in a painful new way.

Last year at the British Open, he shot 81 in a gale on Saturday. At the PGA, he was beaten by a shot on Sunday by a virtual unknown -- Rich Beem. This April, he began and ended the Masters with a 76 and 75. And at the U.S. Open, he shot 75 on Saturday, then four-putted on Sunday.

"Luckily, I hit the fourth putt right in the middle," quipped Woods.

"Anyone who plays golf knows it's not easy and it's very fickle," he said later. "When you're playing great, golf is a great game. When you're playing bad, it's a lonely world out there."

As a result of his visible frustrations, the golf world wants to ask the same question: Are you in a slump? It drives Woods crazy.

"I've won, what, three tournaments ... this year, and you're trying to tell me I'm in a slump?" Woods snapped Saturday.

Let's be more precise. Woods is not in a slump. He's in a lull -- the lull before the storm. We just don't know how long it will be until that storm erupts. However, the range of possibilities is greater than most fans suspect.

Everybody knows Woods might win the British Open next month. What isn't understood, or factored into our expectations, is that he might not win another major title for a year or even two years. That's right. His "streak" of four consecutive "lost" majors could extend to a dozen or so.

Why? For one obvious, but overlooked, reason: At 27, just when he seemed invincible, Jack Nicklaus went a dozen consecutive majors without a win.

Seldom have the careers of two great players in any sport paralleled each other as closely as Woods and Nicklaus. Woods has outdone Nicklaus so far, but only by a small margin -- eight majors to seven by 27. But they are fundamentally similar creatures going through similar career progressions.

What's happening to Tiger right now -- his first big career "lull" -- befell Nicklaus at the same age. At 27, Nicklaus went a dozen consecutive majors without a win. The ways in which he lost, the problems he faced, his injuries and the choices about his future were similar to what Woods confronts.

Great as he was, Nicklaus' whole career was dotted with "slumps" in the majors, even during periods when nobody doubted that he was the world's best player. Between age 22 and 40, Nicklaus had "lulls" of 0 for 12, 0 for 6, 0 for 5, 0 for 4, 0 for 4, 0 for 4 and 0 for 3. There were five entire seasons when he didn't win any of the four majors.

So far, since his '97 Masters win, Woods has had an 0 for 10, an 0 for 3 and his current 0 for 4. We need to get used to this and stop having a fit every time Woods doesn't lap the field. The norm in golf -- even for a Woods or Nicklaus -- is not the "Tiger Slam."

To sense where Woods has been for the last year, let's revisit Jack's drought in the late '60s. Nicklaus had three runner-up finishes in that 0-for-12 span. He even lost to Roberto De Vicenzo in the '67 British Open. If De Vicenzo could beat the Bear, why couldn't others? The next year, Lee Trevino beat Jack in the U.S. Open. The same thing happened to Woods last year when Rich Beem faced him down on Sunday at the PGA. Now, second-tier stars such as Mike Weir and Jim Furyk seem comfortable wearing crowns supposedly intended for Tiger. If Beem, why not them?

Nicklaus also started having injuries, such as the bad back that gave him varying degrees of pain most of his career. Now, Tiger has his knee. He has had surgery, but it still hurts. "No, it's not quite there yet," Woods said. Golf injuries aren't dramatic; they're chronic and boring, usually a joint that never quite gets well.

After he got to the top, Nicklaus had to decide how to arrange his life for the next 15 years. How often would he play? How much would he travel overseas? How would he blend his huge financial interests with his personal life? How much time would he give to family, friends and himself instead of to practice? The transition took years as Jack learned he needed to play less to play better. Chi Chi Rodriguez called him "a legend in his spare time."

Woods is in the middle of similar issues. Over the years, Nicklaus sometimes let himself get a bit greedy. He would fly around on golf-course design deals. He would pursue the golf equipment and apparel buck. Woods has those tendencies, too.

Everybody wants a piece of Tiger. But he needs to prioritize. He didn't look remotely ready for U.S. Open greens. Since the Masters, Woods played on the PGA Tour only once. No wonder he kept saying he couldn't read the Open speeds correctly. Furyk played on Tour five times since Augusta.

In most sports, as athletes mature, they "learn how to win." In golf, at least for the youthful prodigies, they often learn how to lose. They realize that they actually have flaws or that their judgment under pressure isn't as perfect as they thought. For example, Woods has had to accept that he has one minor recurring swing problem.

"It's the same thing always with me -- I get 'stuck,' " Woods said Sunday. "My body outraces my arms and consequently the club drops behind me. When I match up, the ball goes pretty straight."

When he doesn't, it doesn't.

Woods needs 10 more major titles to catch Nicklaus. It's probably not going to be a sprint the way it seemed just a year ago when Woods walked off Bethpage Black. More likely, it will be a fascinating marathon saga that's intertwined with every aspect of Woods' evolving life.

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