By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
8:08 PM EDT, May 21, 2012
BETHESDA — A victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March seemed to signal Tiger Woods' return to a short list of the world's best golfers. His five-shot win was reminiscent of what Woods had done for more than a decade — right down to the signature fist pump.
That victory — his first in 2 ½ years on the PGA Tour and his 72nd overall — seems almost as distant as his last major championship, nearly four years ago at theU.S. Open. The win has been quickly overshadowed by what has been the worst three-tournament stretch of Woods' legendary career.
A tie for 40th at the Masters.
A missed cut at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Another tie for 40th at the Players Championship.
Woods has never played that poorly over three straight tournaments since turning pro in 1996. The recent results have left many predicting again that Woods, 36, may never win another major to add to his total of 14, which remains four shy of Jack Nicklaus' record. It has made most question whether the changes he made under Sean Foley, his third swing coach, will ever kick in.
"I've been through this before," Woods said Monday during a press conference at Congressional Country Club to promote the return of his AT&T National, Jun. 28-July 1. "I remember I had a pretty good year in 2000, and when I didn't win for a couple of months, the word slump came about. Basically the same thing that happened there [is happening now]. I won three tournaments ago."
Woods said he encountered similar problems with consistency when he overhauled his swing under former coach Butch Harmon after winning the Masters when he was 21, and the same thing happened when he reworked his swing under Hank Haney about eight years later. Each time, Woods figured it out.
"The problem that I had with Sean is that I was hurt most of last year," Woods said. "I didn't get the number reps or the time to spend to work on my game. Now it's starting to come. I've had pretty good results this year, not great results, but it's getting better, more consistent. That's something I have to look at in the big picture, how long it takes. Eventually it becomes second nature."
Asked what it might take for Woods to believe his game has returned, he joked, "I won a tournament already."
For a player who averaged more than six wins a year between 2000 and 2007, that is certainly not good enough.
"I think I'm headed in the right direction," Woods said. "Even when I've had some really good years, in the early 2000s, even when I was out winning golf tournaments, I still felt I could improve, I could still get better each and every day. I never looked at it as, 'Oh wow, that's my peak. I can't get any better.' If that's the case, I would have walked. I am just going to try to improve and make every facet of my game more efficient."
Woods has said he is healthier than he's been in five years and that the changes Foley has made are starting to take hold. What Woods can't quantify is the impact these less-than-mediocre results have had on his once inpenetrable psyche, one that allowed him to intimidate opponents just by his mere presence.
"I think that one of the things I am proud of is the fact that I do grind it out," Woods said. "If certainly I packed it in more over the course my career, I would have missed more cuts, especially of late when I haven't been playing well. It's just unfortunate I haven't been able to equate that into Ws. It's just one shot here and there. Sean told me the other day that if I would have improved by final round by two shots, I would have had four wins this year. I'm close, and I've just got to keep going."
Judging by the way the media flocked to Monday's press conference, Woods still commands attention. This year's field won't include the world's No. 1 player — Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S Open at Congressional last summer, will be playing in his native Irish Open that week — but it should have its share of big names.
Those running the AT&T National realize Woods, who won the tournament in 2009, might not be in the hunt come the weekend.
"I think there's a focus on a greater number of players," said club vice-president and tournament chairman Greg Lamb. "Certainly having Tiger here is outstanding. He brings the people out. He makes the tournament a tremendous success. I don't think that Tiger's current play is going to change at all the attendance or the focus or the enjoyment of the members."
One thing has changed for Woods since his early years that could ultimately help him regain the form to become the world's top player. When he revamped his swing the first two times, he forced things, often to his own detriment.
"I am infinitely more patient, infinitely," Woods said. "I've got two kids. Those who are parents know, it makes you more patient, that's for sure."
But everyone's patience has a limit, particularly someone so used to winning.
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