With an impressive victory last weekend in the Western Open, Tiger Woods seemed to quiet most of the whispers about whether the world's best golfer was in a slump. Woods led by as many as 10 strokes and won by five. A winless drought of nearly four months and five tournaments was over.
But was the slump?
Woods never thought he was in one to begin with, but the indisputable truth heading into this week's British Open is that Woods isn't close to the dominant player he was back when he won seven of 11 majors. That stretch began with the 1999 PGA Championship and ended with last year's U.S. Open.
Had he not won the Western Open, the "S" word would have followed Woods all the way to Sandwich, England. Should he not win at Royal St. George's, those whispers might reappear since it will mean that Woods has gone more than a complete cycle of majors without a victory for the first time since 1998.
Jack Nicklaus said recently that what Woods experienced wasn't unusual. And for good reason - Nicklaus endured such a stretch at a similar point in his own legendary career. At the age of 27, having won seven of 21 majors, Nicklaus went winless in 12 straight Grand Slam events.
"You cannot be up all the time," said Nicklaus, whose record of 18 major professional championships was considered unreachable until Woods, who now has won eight, came along. "Everybody would love to be in the slump he is in this year.
"You are going to go through those periods. And you know you never can tell how long [they'll last]. I think my periods were more from getting lazy and not working as hard or finding a golf course during the period that I didn't really like as much."
Woods has never been accused of slacking off, though the Western Open was only his fourth PGA Tour event (and fifth overall) since the Masters. Woods has always been the kind of player who got more out of his practice sessions - especially those done in relative privacy - than from playing tournaments.
Though his results had been spotty, Woods maintained he was close to getting back to form. It didn't help that his game was being dissected more than frogs in a high school biology lab. Woods felt the scrutiny he was under had intensified the past couple of months.
"I don't know what everyone's need is for categorizing everything," Woods said the week after the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in Illinois, where he finished 11 strokes behind champion Jim Furyk. "If I go out and win a couple of tournaments, all of a sudden, I'm unstoppable."
Woods looked like that kind of player again at the Western Open.
"He just kind of got into a groove," said reigning PGA champion Rich Beem, who finished a distant second. "When you get into a groove, golf seems really easy and fun, and for him it's even easier than it is for everyone else. Obviously he's got unbelievable amounts of game."
Not setting pace
Where his game had been before the Western was anybody's guess. Despite Woods' protestations that he wasn't in a slump - an opinion shared by many of his peers as well as some of the game's legends - statistics showed Woods' performance level had dropped in several areas this year.
Many attributed his erratic play to his inability to find a comfort level with his Nike driver. Others, including Woods, blamed his putting. But he also battled a combination of being a bit wild off the tee and an inability to hit approach shots close enough to the pin to make birdies.
After leading the tour in total driving in 1999 and 2000, when he was still using Titleist drivers, Woods dropped to 11th last year and 44th this year. (He is now up to 35th.) He also has watched a parade of less-talented players outdrive him by 10 yards or more.
Having heard complaints from Woods and others about the "hot" drivers that enabled some to hit the ball more than 350 yards with regularity, PGA commissioner Tim Finchem announced recently that testing will begin next year to ensure the spring-like effects of drivers fit within the parameters set by the U.S. Golf Association.
Woods dropped from sixth last year in driving distance to 30th a few weeks ago before getting back up to 21st after finishing second last week in steamy Chicago. His greens in regulation has barely changed, hovering around 68 percent.
The difference-maker last week, though, was his putter.
Woods finished first in putting average per hole (1.5 putts) and second overall in putts per round (26). That was in stark contrast from his yearly rankings - a tie for 24th in average putts per hole and a tie for 31st in putts per round - and an even greater disparity with how Woods putted at the U.S. Open.
Starting with his opening round of 63 at Cog Hill (his best scoring round of the year), Woods made several putts from beyond 15 feet. It helped him win his third Western Open, his fourth tournament this year and the 38th PGA Tour event of his career.
"Well, it's satisfying, the fact that I went out there and did the things I've been doing at practice," Woods said. "I was close to putting things together. It was getting better each and every week, and the things I was starting to work on were starting to come together.
"And that's what's fun, when you can put things together, take things from the range to the course. Not only with my swing but with my putting stroke."
Woods admitted that he tinkered a bit with his swing and his putting during this stretch.
"I'm just like you," he said. "I'm a golfer."
And the so-called slump?
"I'm sure that's going to be how it is my entire career," Woods said. "If I don't win for a few weeks, then all of a sudden I'm back in it again. One of the things I've learned about being out here is not to get trapped in this up-and-down roller coaster of the press, sensationalism. That's what sells."
Not feeling lag
Now Woods can go to the British Open fresh off a week's vacation in Ireland and the positive vibes he took with him from the Western Open. Had he gone to England winless since March, Woods likely would have been thinking about, if not admitting to, his slump.
"It's certainly a shot of confidence, there's no doubt about it," said Woods, whose only British Open victory came at St. Andrews in 2000. "You can't say it's not. Any time you win you've got to feel pretty good about it. As I said, the things I've been working on are starting to come together.
"And hopefully they'll come together more so at the British Open than they did this week, I hope."
Not that Woods' peers thought he was ever in a slump.
"To us as players, we laugh at it and I think Tiger should laugh at it, because it's crazy," reigning British Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa said recently. "If I had his record, I wouldn't be out here. I would be out of here. It's ridiculous. I can't even take it seriously."
Said LPGA star Annika Sorenstam, who had taken some of the spotlight away from Woods with her historic appearance in the PGA's Bank of America Colonial: "It's ridiculous; the guy's playing great golf. The other guys are playing better golf. He's pushing them to get better, and that's what you're seeing."
If anything, Woods blamed his critics for placing him on too high a pedestal in the first place.
"I've had some success," said Woods, whose victory at the Western Open gave him at least four for the fifth straight year, a PGA record. "But sometimes all of you [writers] can be a bit dramatic in your writing styles, even flowery at times. I've hit some good shots, but they haven't been that good. I've hit some bad shots, and they haven't been that bad."
Running into obstacles
It all began with some bad shots during the third round of last year's British Open.
Two strokes off the lead after the second round, Woods shot his worst score ever in a major - an 81 - while having difficulty dealing with raw, wet and windy conditions on the Scottish coast. Els shot 72 that day, took a two-stroke lead into the final round and wound up winning in a playoff.
Though Woods finished strong with a 65 and later showed his talent in the PGA Championship during a final-round 67 (with birdies on each of the last three holes) that left him one shot behind Beem at Hazeltine, the world's best player didn't seem to be at full strength much after that.
Offseason knee surgery postponed the start of the 2003 season for Woods by a month. He won his first time out, at the Buick Invitational, then followed it up with wins at the Match Play Championship and, despite a case of food poisoning that left him vomiting on the course, at Bay Hill.
Now, finally, he won the Western Open.
"And if I don't win two weeks in a row," he said, "then all of a sudden, I'm in a slump again."
Woods is certainly held to a different standard.
Is anyone talking about the slump Els has endured since starting the year with four straight wins (two on the PGA Tour and two on the European Tour) before hurting a wrist on a punching bag? (He has a five-shot lead after three rounds of the Scottish Open.)
Did anyone outside Canada notice that Mike Weir fell from 11th in 2001 to 78th last year before winning three times this year, including the Masters? Does anyone care about Phil Mickelson's fall to ninth in the world rankings? "If you get caught up in the roller-coaster ride of the media, how good you are, how terrible you are, how good you are, how terrible you are, you're not going to have a very happy career," Woods said. "You have to be patient. Golf is very fickle as we all know."
Woods said he saw signs of what happened at the Western Open during the Buick Classic three weeks ago in Harrison, N.Y.
"I would play four, five, six great holes and lose it for a couple holes, then it comes back," he recalled.
It came back at the Western Open.
Will it be there for the British Open?
Scoring 1st 1st
average 67.79 68.50
Total 1st 35th
Fairways in 54th 116th
regulation 71.2 64.6
Greens in 1st 9th
regulation 1.71 1.71
Putts per 12th 36th
round 28.17 28.76