Woods Facing High Standard

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One green jacket and Tiger Woods already was being compared to Jack Nicklaus.
 
Four straight majors, and the comparisons climbed even higher -- to himself.
 
The lofty standard facing the No. 1 player in golf was never more clear when Woods arrived at Augusta National. He is the betting favorite to win the Masters for the fourth time, and yet there is a feeling this major has never been so ripe with contenders.
 
He has won eight majors -- none of his peers have more than three -- but Woods is facing sharp scrutiny because he has gone the last six majors without winning.
 
'It's different for me versus any other player,' Woods said Tuesday. 'Some other player has a bad week, misses the cut, it's no big deal, he slips through the radar. Whereas, if I shoot one bad round, it's a little different.'
 
But this is no surprise.
 
'It's the only thing I've ever known since I've been out here,' Woods said. 'I was compared to Nicklaus when I first came out here, and now I'm being compared to what I did in 2000, 1999 and 2001.'
 
It was during that time that Woods made history just about every time he played. He won nine times and $9 million in 2000, the centerpiece of a stretch when he won five out of six majors.
 
Expectations have taken on a new meaning.
 
'The people out there, spectators, if they don't see Tiger in the top five making a charge on Sunday afternoon, there's something wrong with him,' Ernie Els said.
 
But even Woods concedes that his swing is not the same as it was in 2000, and there are inconsistencies in his game that he is trying to solve.
 
One week he drove the ball to all corners of the golf course and was spared by good iron play. The next week he found the fairways, but could never get it close to the hole.
 
He hits the ball great on the practice range. There are moments of doubt on the first tee.
 
'It's not easy to trust your swing if your mechanics are not quite sound,' Woods said. 'That's one of the things that I've been trying to work on, trying to get my fundamentals of my golf swing more sound so I can go out there and don't have to think anything except for the shot I want to hit.'
 
That has led to questions about the state of his game, his split with swing coach Butch Harmon and the pursuit of Nicklaus' 18 majors that no longer looks as easy as it did two years ago.
 
Augusta National should be a good place to find some answers.
 
No one has ever played the Masters on a course this long and this firm. While the fast fairways should negate some of the length, the greens will accept only the best shots.
 
It doesn't necessarily favor the longest hitters or the sharpest short games, but simply the best players.
 
'A guy that feels good about his game this week, he's got a good chance to win,' Els said. 'It's pretty open.'
 
Woods already noticed some severe differences.
 
He could reach the par-5 second hole with a good drive and a 3-wood the last few years. During a practice round Monday, he got there with a 6-iron.
 
What really got his attention was the precision required this week.
 
Playing the third hole on Tuesday, Woods said Mark O'Meara hit a slight draw and watched the ball run through the green. He approached it with a soft fade that landed in about the same place, only Woods' ball stayed on the green.
 
'If you don't hit the proper shot this week, you're really going to pay the price,' Woods said. 'The landing areas are that much smaller now. It's going to become more apparent who is really hitting the ball as the week goes on, because you can't get away with having a bad ball-striking day.'
 
Then again, Woods can't get away with a bad day at anything.
 
Going for his fifth consecutive victory in the Bay Hill Invitational, he shot over par the final three rounds and tied for 46th, his worst result on the PGA Tour in five years.
 
In his final tournament before the Masters, Woods opened with a 75 at The Players Championship and was in danger of missing the cut. He extended his record streak to 120, but was never a factor on Sunday.
 
Never mind that he won earlier this year at the Match Play Championship, or that his last two events were the only times he has finished out of the top 10 this year.
 
Woods, along with his peers, tend to look at the big picture.
 
'I've got to go back to his '99 through 2001 seasons, and probably 2002,' Els said. 'He played on such a level that I think Nicklaus would have had a very tough time handling him. And yes, he's cooled down a little bit. But he's still playing on a very high level. He's up there.'
 
Only now, he has some company.
 
Phil Mickelson, leading the PGA Tour money list for the first time in six years, won the Bob Hope Classic and has finished in the top 10 in all but one event. Several people, including Harmon, believe Lefty will finally break through and win his first major this week because of the control he has shown in his game.
 
Vijay Singh is closing in on the No. 1 ranking Woods has held the last five years. Els has already won twice this year, one of those at Royal Melbourne in Australia, which reminds so many people of Augusta National.
 
Adam Scott, the guy who swings like Woods, is coming off a victory in The Players Championship and is suddenly regarded as golf's next star.
 
'It's still very intimidating when he's up there just because he's been up there for so long,' Singh said of Woods. 'You know, Tiger is Tiger. I don't know if he's not playing well now or he is just waiting for the majors. I just speak for the rest of the guys. I think our play has gone a step higher.'
 
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters Tournament
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  • Tee Times
  • Arnold Palmers 50th Masters
     
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