A Major-less Mantel for Tiger

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SANDWICH, England (AP) -- Slump? Tiger Woods -- and those trying to knock him off -- snickered at the notion all along.
 
``He's won eight majors and he's 27-years-old,'' Ernie Els said. ``If I had his record, I would not be out here. I would be out of here. It's ridiculous. I cannot take it serious.''
 
Woods certainly doused talk of a career downturn with his dominating victory at the Western Open last week. Of course, this guy is held to a different standard than everyone else, which is why his mantel looks so empty.
 
For the first time since 1999, Woods doesn't have possession of any Grand Slam trophy. It's a glaring circumstance, one he hopes to rectify at the British Open.
 
As usual, Woods is the overwhelming favorite. But, as Els (British), Rich Beem (PGA Championship), Mike Weir (Masters) and Jim Furyk (U.S. Open) demonstrated at the last four majors, Tiger can be tamed.
 
If Woods doesn't win at Royal St. George's, he'll go to the PGA Championship needing a victory to avoid his first season without a major since 1998.
 
That is no small motivation. As a kid, Woods already was chasing Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 major titles. Ten away from catching his idol, Woods wants to get his pursuit back on course.
 
He's always tried to taper his routine to ensure his best play at the Big Four. As he is wont to say, ``If you win one major, you've had a great year.''
 
Woods wasn't much of a factor in the first half of the Grand Slam, tying for 15th at the Masters and 20th at the U.S. Open. But he made an emphatic statement at the Western Open, blowing away a strong field on the way to a five-stroke victory.
 
``He's one of the only guys I would sit and watch hit balls all day long,'' said Beem, the distant runner-up. ``When you get into a groove, golf seems really easy and fun. For him, it's even easier than it is for everyone else. Obviously, he's got unbelievable amounts of game.''
 
Woods took great satisfaction from silencing those who wanted to turn his 3 1/2-month winless streak into something more. After all, he played only four official events in that span -- and never finished out of the top 20.
 
A slump? Hardly. All the while, Woods was working on his game, fine-tuning his swing and settling his putting stroke for a run at major No. 9.
 
``As I'm walking around, people are asking that question all the time. 'When are you going to start playing good again?''' he said. ``Golf is very, very difficult. And to be honest with you, I'm pleased with the way I've been playing.''
 
Actually, Woods has only himself to blame for raising the bar so high. Coming off knee surgery, he won three of the first four times he teed it up this year. When he didn't win, it was an upset.
 
``I'm sure that's going to be how it is my entire career,'' he said. ``If I don't win for a few weeks, then all of a sudden I'm back in it again. One of the things I've learned about being out here is not to get trapped in this up-and-down roller coaster of the press. Sensationalism. That's what sells.''
 
Then again, Woods helped turn up the attention-meter with his campaign against ``hot'' drivers. Heading into the Western, he went so far as to say he knew of one player who was using illegal equipment to increase the length of his shots.
 
``I'm not the only one that feels that way,'' he said. ``We're trying to protect the integrity of the game.''
 
Coincidentally -- or maybe not -- the one glaring flaw in Woods' game is his performance off the tee. Normally one of the PGA Tour's longest hitters, he ranks 21st in driving distance (293.4 yards) and 116th in driving accuracy (hitting the fairway only 64.5 percent of the time).
 
But that's nitpicking. With his victory at the Western, Woods has won at least four tournaments in five straight years. No one -- not even Nicklaus -- had accomplished that feat.
 
``I've been able to not only be consistent, but close the deal, too,'' Woods said. ``That's where you ultimately want to be. It's also one of the reasons why I changed my game back in '97, '98, the beginning of '99, to be more consistent, put myself there more often and give myself a chance to win. It's paid off.''
 
A victory at Sandwich would propel Woods into another exclusive club. Nicklaus is the only other golfer to claim a double career Grand Slam -- winning each of the majors at least twice -- and he was three years older when he reached the milestone in 1970.
 
Woods' first British Open victory came three years ago at St. Andrews, where he romped to an eight-stroke win. He would like to erase the memory of last year's trip across the pond, when a third-round 81 -- his worst score as a pro -- knocked him out of contention.
 
While overhauling his swing in the 1990s, Woods played in 10 majors without winning. He was hardly ordinary in that period, finishing in the top 10 five times, and he emerged from the transformation as a more complete player.
 
Woods no longer has to rely on pure power. He can get away with a flaw in his timing. His shot repertoire is much deeper.
 
``I'm just like you. I'm a golfer,'' he said. ``It's the eternal thing. You're always going to try and get better.''
 
Woods has won seven of the last 15 majors, a streak that began at the 1999 PGA Championship and included the ``Tiger Slam,'' when he became the first player to hold all four majors at the same time.
 
In that context, does the past year qualify as a slump? C'mon, get real.
 
``We laugh at it,'' Els said. ``I think Tiger should laugh at it, because it's crazy.''
 
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