Tiger Woods - theres a surprise - is once again the subject of conversation of the year to date in his sport. He turned 30 in December and hasnt been beaten, in a stroke play event in which he finished all 72 holes without having to withdraw because of illness, since then.
The striped ones latest conquest was the Ford Championship at Doral Sunday in Miami. Woods held off David Toms and Camilo Villegas by one shot despite bogeys on the 71st and 72d holes. With apologies to Gertrude Stein: A win is a win is a win.
It was Woods 48th official PGA Tour victory and bumped his career earnings ever closer to 60 million dollars. Money, of course, doesnt mean terribly much to Woods anymore.
But getting better does. To improve is the goal he repeats, like a mantra, anytime you ask.
When Woods captured three major championships on his way to nine Tour wins in 2000 we thought that might have been the high water mark. Woods set or tied 27 PGA Tour records that season and played the four majors in a combined total of 54 under par.
Then a few things happened. Woods knee began to wear down and it eventually needed surgery. He and his instructor, Butch Harmon, parted ways. And Vijay Singh became a force.
Woods had set the bar at a height that appeared to be too high for everybody, including himself, to ever clear again. Then the relentless Singh cleared it, wresting Woods spot at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings and at the top of the money list and, in 2004, in the Player of the Year balloting.
Woods was forced to regroup.
Cutting to the chase: Woods knee healed. Singhs putter cooled. And the system of Harmons replacement, Hank Haney, began embedding itself in Woods muscle memory. This made it easier, among other things, for Woods to diagnose his flaws in mid-round.
Meanwhile, Haney told me in January, Woods had seen what Singh had figured out during his run: Bomb the ball as long as you can down the fairway off the tee and understand that a wedge out of the rough is better than 6-iron from the middle of the fairway.
On the front nine Sunday at Doral Woods hit zero fairways in regulation and all nine greens. Dont, by the way, think any of this has been lost on golfs governing agencies. The chatter in the back channels at the offices of the regulators is that technology in the grooves on the faces of wedges has quietly advanced. Getting the ball to stop on the green out of the rough, the whisperers say, has become easier. Some say too easy.
Stay tuned on this debate. If it comes to a fight in court, or anywhere else, Im betting on the equipment companies.
Anyway, squarer grooves or no, Woods has always been ahead of the curve at figuring out things, especially as they relate to his golf game and lowered scores.
It now appears he has more weapons and more ways to win than he did five years ago. Much of that comes back to his almost impossibly-sophisticated level of imagination, confidence and skill around the green complexes. This enables him to win with his A, B, C and, sometimes even, his D game.
He also says his practice check list is shorter than it has been in a long time as the Tour begins its annual run-up to the Masters in early April. If Woods successfully defends at a recently-lengthened Augusta where he will be a heavy favorite, it will be his fifth Masters win in 10 tries as a professional.
It will also officially mark the public beginning of the Grand Slam watch. Its way too early to start making predictions. But it is not too early to speculate.
If you ask me what Woods needs to do in 2006 to improve on 2000, I will tell you four majors will do it. Three majors and more than nine Tour wins will also do it.
For his part, Woods will stay in the moment, one more thing he does better than anybody else.
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