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Woods rebuilding dominant form


What Tiger Woods did Sunday at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami brought back memories for many who watched his first ascension to the No. 1 ranking in the world. It also revived a recurring nightmare for those who fell victim to his dominance during much of a five-year reign at the top.

By winning the $5.5 million Ford Championship in a riveting final-round shootout with rival Phil Mickelson, Woods reclaimed the position he had held for 264 consecutive weeks before losing it in September to Vijay Singh. It was the 42nd PGA Tour win for Woods, with the promise of more to come.

The stretch of 13 months that Woods went without winning anything but last year's World Match Play Championship ended quietly in November with an eight-stroke victory in Japan. Woods won his own silly season event in December and again at the Buick Invitational in January.

But it was his performance on the famous Blue Monster, particularly in rounds of 63 and 66 last weekend, that served notice Woods, 29, is ready to add to the record he set last year of 332 combined weeks of ranking as the best player in the world.

"The ranking will take care of itself with wins," Woods said shortly after he beat Mickelson by a stroke. "I said that from the very beginning. That's how I got there. That's how Vijay got there, that's how Double-D [David Duval] got there. It's nothing but winning golf tournaments."

Winning got him back to No. 1, but what got Woods back to winning is the result of rebuilding his swing for the second time in the past seven years.

The changes were made in the last year under respected teacher Hank Haney, the longtime coach of Woods' close friend and mentor, Mark O'Meara. The simplest way to describe the changes is to say that Woods, in most instances, has a more compact, controlled swing.

"Sometimes, you just feel like you need to head into a different direction in order to get better," Woods said at the recent Accenture Match Play Championship in Carlsbad, Calif., where he lost in the second round. "We've seen guys do it before in the past.

"[Nick] Faldo made that drastic change back in his day and had wonderful success, and you've seen other guys do it. But learning to do different things with the golf swing, the plane and release ... are new to me. I feel like I've got a better grasp of what to do on the golf course at all times."

Many had pointed to Woods' breakup with longtime teacher Butch Harmon shortly after the 2002 British Open as the start of his troubles. After winning 27 of 52 Tour events and seven of 11 majors, including four straight between the 2000 U.S. Open and 2001 Masters, Woods slipped noticeably.

Except for a second-place finish in the 2002 PGA Championship, Woods was rarely in the hunt at majors the past two years, and his winless streak in the four Grand Slam events grew to 10. He was passed by Singh as well as by Ernie Els in the world rankings.

"Even where I was going through that stretch when I was playing good golf for five or six years, there were days when I hit it god-awful," said Woods, whose fourth place on last year's PGA Tour money list was his lowest finish since 1998.

Woods had gone through a major overhaul of his swing shortly after his record-setting, history-making victory at the 1997 Masters, when at 21 he became the first player of color to win a major championship and broke the tournament scoring mark in the process.

Having successfully changed his swing once, Woods knew he could do it again.

"I think learning different shots with Butch and different philosophies has made me a better player overall than if I would have just done this with Hank from the get-go, because I've got so many different ways of playing the game when things aren't going right," said Woods.

Faldo, who underwent a radical swing change under David Leadbetter at a similar age, said recently that the "four majors he [Woods] won in a row is not that long ago and he had a great swing and everything. If Tiger really believes he can be better than he was in 2000, everyone is in serious trouble."

The swing changes and shot-making approach are not the only major alterations for Woods.

Since getting married in October, Woods appears more relaxed. Though he still tosses clubs away in disgust - as he did when he chunked a pitch into a bunker on the 16th hole Sunday - he seems more in control of his emotions and more comfortable with his fellow players, the media, fans and himself.

"When you feel like it's all coming together, like we're seeing with the success he's having, it puts you in a state of ease," said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent at IMG since 1998. "He feels good about that, and feels good about all the aspects of his life. He's very much at peace right now."

Unlike the first time he got to No. 1, when Woods overtook Duval in the summer of 1999, this time seems as if he's worked harder and is more appreciative of what the ranking means.

"The first time I got there, it was exciting because I've never been there before, and it was something I really wanted to happen, especially when I broke the record for being the youngest ever to do that, that's kind of a cool thing." said Woods.

"This time around, I've learned from that experience, what does it take to get there in the first place. It takes winning. You can't go out there and finish top 10 every week. You have to pull in W's to get to No. 1 in the world. I did that in late '96, early '97 and then back again in '99."

Note: The final-round showdown Sunday between Woods and Mickelson attracted the largest television audience for the annual tournament at Doral since Greg Norman won there in 1990. According to NBC, it drew a 5.9 share (a little more than 6 million viewers), representing an 84 percent increase over last year and a largest audience than either last year's PGA Championship or British Open.

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