No 3 Tiger He is A-Changin

By Mercer BaggsDecember 28, 2004, 5:00 pm
2004 Stories of the YearEditor's note: We are counting down the top 10 stories in golf for the 2004 season. This is Story No. 3.
It didnt matter what everyone else believed. He believed it. When he said, over and over and over again, that he was close to putting it all together, everyone shook their heads and thought it was the worst case of denial since Nixon claimed he wasn't a crook.
We had to see it to believe it. Because what we had seen, we almost couldnt believe.
Tiger Woods was hitting balls left and right. Spectators were scattering, covering their heads from errant projectiles and their ears from shouted profanities. It was like watching Beethoven butcher his own songs.
The man whose clubs seemed to be an extension of his arms had lost control of his swing.
Ironically, it all started with a win.
Woods pointed to his victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship as the tournament in which he knew he needed to make a change in his swing.
I won because I putted great. I hit it all over the map. My iron play was not what it normally is, he said. Even though I won the tournament, I knew that I wasnt going to do it for the rest of the year, so I had to start changing a few things.
It was more than perplexing that Woods would even attempt to alter his swing. After all, this was the swing, one co-authored by Butch Harmon, which he had used to win seven of his eight major championships, including four in a row. It was what he had used to make him unequivocally the No. 1 player in the world. It was the swing he had used to utterly demoralize the rest of the tour.
But he had done this before. And then, as it was this time, it seemed odd that he would undertake an overhaul, seeing as he had just won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes.
It took a while for everything to come together the first time. But when it finally did
The first full year during that first swing transition was the worst. And it was a lot like this year.
Woods won one time in 1998; he won once in 2004. He had eight top-5 finishes in 98; nine in 04. He had 13 top-10s in 98; 14 in 04. He finished fourth on the money list both times.
Statistically, the numbers were in the same ballpark. The only differences were, he was worse off the tee this year (driving accuracy: 67.9% in 98; 56.1% in 04), but better on the greens (putting: 147th on tour in 98; 2nd in 04).
But there was one really big difference this time around.
I got a lot more badgering from you guys, Woods said to the media.
Woods is a truly unique figure on the PGA Tour. He is the only player ' the only player ' who must face the press before every tournament in which he plays and after every round ' whether hes leading or 10 shots back.
The close talking began at The Players Championship.
Its close, he said, after the second round at Sawgrass, of getting his game to where he wanted it to be.
Its pretty close to where it was (in 2000), he said prior to the start of the Masters
Im pretty close, he said after the final round of the Masters.
Its close, he said after the second round of the Wachovia Championship.
It is close. It is close, he said after the final round of the Byron Nelson.
Im close with everything, he said before the Memorial.
The game is close to coming together, he said at the Western. I know I keep saying that, but I feel in my heart of hearts that it is. Im close to putting it all together.
Eventually, he stopped using that word. But the questions still persisted.
Before every tournament and after every round, he was asked: How close are you to being the Tiger Woods of 2000? After all, that is today's standard of greatness -- a standard he established.
He tried to tell everyone to be patient; that he knew what he was doing. But everyone wanted to see immediately the results of his sheltered work.
I was able to do it at home; I was able to do it with my buddies; I was able to do it on the range; I could do it at the range on tournament sites; but I never did it on the golf course in competition, he said. I had to take baby steps, and I did it all year.
Go back to Butch, they cried!
This year was more than just a transition period in Tigers game. This year changed the way the public and players alike viewed him.
He was no longer a fear factor. He blew a pair of 36-hole leads, something he hadnt done in five years. And he lost a 54-hole lead for the first time in four years.
He was also no longer the No. 1 player in the world. After a record 264 consecutive weeks of holding the top spot on the Official World Golf Ranking, he relinquished the title to Vijay Singh after the PGA Championship. He even fell to No. 3, before rising back into the second spot. Singh also took away the Player of the Year trophy Tiger had been hoarding for the past five years.
There were plenty of theories for Tigers struggles: he was too distracted with his engagement and eventual marriage to Elin Nordegren; he was worried about his fathers health; he was injured; he just wasnt into it the way he used to be; Hank Haney had screwed up his head.
But Woods saw progression in what others viewed as failure. He was getting closer to winning. And when he shot 64-65 in the middle rounds of the Tour Championship, he knew that he was closer than ever.
I played those two middle rounds the way I know I can play, and I took that confidence to Japan, and boom, off I went, he said.
Two weeks after the official end to the 2004 PGA Tour season, Woods went to Asia for the Dunlop Phoenix Open, where he won by eight strokes.
In Japan, I hit almost 80 percent of the fairways that week, which for me is unheard of, he said. There were times I hit 12 or 13 fairways (of 14), so thats very exciting, and thats how I won.
If people didnt take notice of Tigers win on the other side of the world, they certainly did when he won his next event. Woods captured his own Target World Challenge in early December. There were only 15 other players in the field, but they were 15 of the best players in the world. And they got an up-close look at just how close he really is now to putting it all together.
Every shot I wanted to hit, I hit, he said of his winning performance.
The year 2004 is a closed chapter for Tiger Woods. He won but once, lost his recognition as the games best, and battled a barrage of criticism more trying than his boot camp experience at Ft. Bragg.
You would think that things could only get better for Woods in 2005. Of course, it doesnt matter what we believe. It matters what he believes.
But he believes this, too.
This year is almost identical to what it was in 98, numbers-wise, he said. Im excited about the prospects of next year, and hopefully itll be similar to the results I had in 99.
In case youve forgotten, Woods won eight tour tournaments in 99, including the PGA Championship, two WGC events and the Tour Championship. He also regained his No. 1 ranking from David Duval and held onto for the next five years.
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