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A Return to Domination

2006 Stories of the Year Editor's Note: is counting down its top 5 stories from the world of golf in 2006 and looking ahead to the five 'Big Questions' on the PGA TOUR in 2007. This is story No. 1 from this past season.
The 2006 PGA TOUR season had a defining event, the U.S. Open. It was at Winged Foot where Tiger Woods missed his first cut as a professional in a major championship. It was also where Phil Mickelson made double-bogey on the 72nd hole to lose by one.
For Woods, the result was disappointing. He was competing in his first event in nine weeks, his first event since the death of his father to cancer in May.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' six-event PGA TOUR winning streak began at the Open Championship.
For Mickelson, the result was disheartening. He was ready to stake full claim to Tigers throne atop the world of golf.
Tiger recovered. Phil did not. And the current landscape of golf can be traced back to that one event.
How would things have been different if Mickelson had made par? If Mickelson had won his third straight major championship? We can only wonder. Mickelson can only imagine.
Woods, however, does not dwell on such scenarios. He doesnt have to. He had no problem dusting himself off after being trampled at the Open. Though he had never missed a cut as a professional in a major, the aftereffects were nothing he hadnt dealt with before: frustration, anger, disappointment. Nothing that couldnt be overcome. Nothing like the pain of losing a loved one.
For Mickelson, it was different. Everything was going his way. He was peaking. And then he crashed. In six brutal swings everything changed.
Mickelson was crushed. He was a public punch-line once again. He hasnt since been the same.
The same can be said for Tiger.
Woods next emerged at the Cialis Western Open, and he was not the same player who exited early at Winged Foot. He didnt win that week, but his runner-up performance helped set the stage for his return to dominance.
Watching Tiger Woods play the role of superior golfer is like watching Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series. The plot is roughly the same in each movie, but the action is so captivating that you dont mind its repetitive nature.
Weve seen Woods dominate before, most notably in 2000. That year serves as the standard of Tigers greatness. But even he admits that what he accomplished over a three-month stretch in 2006 rivals that of six years ago.
'It's close,' he answered when asked to compare the two campaigns. 'Very close.'
The winning started at the Open Championship, where he was the defending champion. Woods conquered Royal Liverpool by executing a game plan that involved hitting only one driver all week. His performance was masterful.
That was the beginning of six straight PGA TOUR wins, including the PGA Championship, where he outclassed and overpowered the field at Medinah.
His final numbers included eight PGA TOUR victories (and one more in Dubai) and $9.94 million in official TOUR earnings. His lead in the Official World Golf Ranking, which was less than six points after the U.S. Open, is now more than double that.
Was it his best year ever? Not according to Woods. Not when you consider everything that took place outside the ropes.
If you take into account what happened off the golf course, it's my worst year, he said. I consider (this year) as a loss. In the grand scheme of things, golf, it doesn't even compare to losing a parent.
Tigers personal life took a very serious hit in 2006. And whether inspired or not by his fathers passing, Woods was nearly unbeatable upon his return to the game.
Not that he was invincible. He lost to Shaun Micheel in the European Tours World Match Play in mid-September. He also failed to win November events in China and Japan, falling to Padraig Harrington in a playoff in the latter.
Tiger Woods
Woods has once again separated himself from the rest of the golfing world.
However, unlike just six months ago, no one is questioning who the best player in the world is.
Woods got to this point, or should it be that he returned to this height of excellence, after completing his second major swing overhaul.
He and instructor Hank Haney spent the majority of the 2004 season defending themselves over the alterations. He won only once that year. But in 2005, he collected six TOUR trophies, including at The Masters Tournament and British Open.
Still, it was Mickelson who was perceived by many as The Man as the seasons second major loomed. Mickelson had won the BellSouth Classic by 13 and had claimed The Masters for his second consecutive major triumph.
Woods, meanwhile, had been sidelined for more than two months because of his fathers failing health and ultimate death.
While Winged Foot proved a back-breaker for Mickelson, it provided some much needed competition for Woods, if for only two days. Though he missed the cut, he returned to action three weeks later rarin to go.
And where he went was where only three men had ever gone before. Only Byron Nelson (11 straight in 1945) and Ben Hogan (six straight in 1948) had ever won six straight PGA TOUR events.
And, of course, Woods, who won six straight from the latter stages of 1999 to the beginning of 2000.
Hes now the first to accomplish such a feat twice.
I think it's interesting how I was getting ripped for making my swing changes, now here we are. That's why I made those changes. It's nice to have the opportunity to do the things I know I can do in this game of golf, Woods said after his sixth win-in-a-row at the WGC-American Express Championship.
Woods seems to have once again significantly separated himself from the rest of the TOUR pack. His chief rivals appear to once again be found in the past rather than the present ' including himself circa 2000.
Woods won nine times that year. He won three consecutive major championships. He finished in the top-5 17 times in 20 events played.
Many wonder if Woods can duplicate that season in 2007. Woods wonders if he can better it.
People want to compare stuff to the past, he said, and I'm trying to get better in the future, not the past.
Woods is again without peer, at least a modern one. Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els appear to be less of a challenge than breaking Jack Nicklaus career major victory record or Byron Nelsons TOUR winning streak or Sam Sneads career TOUR wins mark.
But despite them all ' those in the present and those from the past ' and despite how well he is playing entering the upcoming season, Woods knows that there will always be one against whom he will always find his truest competition.
It's always yourself, he said. You're always trying to better what you've done in the past, always. Hopefully that's good enough to beat the rest of the guys. But if you keep improving each and every day, then in the end you're always going to have a very successful career.
Related Links:
  • Previewing 2006; Reviewing 2007
  • Woods Repeats at Open Championship
  • Woods Wins Going Away at PGA
  • Tiger Woods' Bio