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Woods facing unfamiliar test in Conway Farms

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Tiger Woods is a creature of habit.

He’s an early riser. He’s a practice-round dew-sweeper. He’s a workout fiend. He’s almost always accompanied by his spokesman and agent. He wears a red shirt in the final round, he plays virtually the same schedule every year, and in news conferences he tends to recite his favorite Tigerisms. Hey, it is what it is.

And when it comes to PGA Tour venues, Woods clearly prefers the familiar, as well.

Thirty-seven of his 79 career Tour titles – or nearly 47 percent – have come on six courses: Torrey Pines (eight wins), Bay Hill (eight), Firestone (eight), Muirfield Village (five), Doral (four) and Augusta National (four).


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Thirty-seven wins – an outrageous number. Think about it this way: Woods has more PGA Tour wins at those six courses than Vijay Singh (34), Davis Love III (20) and Ernie Els (19) have in their entire careers, or as many as Steve Stricker (12), Adam Scott (10), Zach Johnson (nine) and Brandt Snedeker (six) have combined.

This is relevant now, of course, as Woods tees it up at Conway Farms, host of this week’s BMW Championship, which is a track he hadn’t seen before Wednesday’s 7 a.m. pro-am.

Sure, caddie Joe LaCava has been on-site for a few days, scouting the course with a yardage book in hand, but in touring the 7,200-yard, Tom Fazio design for the first time Wednesday, even Woods admitted: “I normally don’t work this hard in a pro-am.”

The greens changed speed throughout the morning, and both Woods and LaCava assessed a few different options off the tees, but that challenge figures to become even more difficult as the week wears on. Indeed, it’s going to be a bizarre few days in the Windy City – the four-day temperature range from Tuesday to Friday is between 62 and 96 degrees. The low temperature Friday is expected to be about 45.

So by the weekend the fairways will have dried out, the greens will have firmed up, and the ball won’t be traveling as far.

“It’ll be a totally different golf course,” Woods said.

That’s not exactly good news for Woods. The last time he won at a course that he was seeing for the first time was 2006, at the American Express Championship at The Grove (England). In all, he has won just 12 times when entering a tournament with no prior course knowledge, and most of that damage was done between 1999 and 2006, a period when he could seemingly show up blindfolded yet still find himself in contention.  

Woods has won eight times in the past 19 months, but each victory came at a course that he had seen at least three times previously. This year, in particular, Woods has taken advantage of his veteran status, winning five times at familiar tracks – Torrey Pines (12 previous starts), Doral (nine), Bay Hill (16), Sawgrass (15) and Firestone (13).

If you’re looking for an explanation, his former coach, Hank Haney, suggested one earlier this season on Twitter – that Woods “doesn’t practice his putting or short game enough on-site at unfamiliar sites.” Perhaps that’s true, but Woods, ever the optimist, prefers to view that statistical curiosity in a different light.

Last month, after another win at Firestone, Woods was asked: If you had one tournament to win, and you could tee it up at either Torrey, Bay Hill or Firestone, which would you pick?

His reply: “Can I play six holes on each?”

Those three are vastly different courses – seaside; twisting and turning; plain and straightforward – but Woods said there are three similarities: the comfort level with his sight lines, how he visualized the shots and the vibe around the track.

“It’s one of those things where just because you see the lines and you feel it, you’ve still got to go out there and execute,” he said, “and that’s something that I’ve been able to do over the years.”

Only a handful of players in this 70-man field have seen Conway Farms before, none more than Luke Donald, a member here for 10-plus years. Thirteen other players have competed in some kind of event here, but never as a pro. By the time Stanford teed it up in the NCAA Championship at Conway Farms, in 1997, Woods had already turned pro … and won the Masters.  

Of his first spin around this course, Woods said, “I had to rely on Joey a little bit, and were discussing the weather forecast and how it’s going to change, and discussing the different lines and different options. We did a little work today, or more so than we normally do.”

For a player who prefers the familiar, it remains to be seen whether that one five-hour cram session will be enough.