A warmer Woods makes more links

The Baltimore Sun

A decade into his professional career, Tiger Woods has evolved in the manner of many legendary athletes. The teenage phenom who seemed more like a machine than a golfer has become a little more human and humble, though certainly no less dominant.

"I think he certainly has gained some dimension in the last year or so, both in his marriage and in the passing of his father," said Paul Swangard, the director of the Warsaw Center for Sports Marketing at the University of Oregon. "That has certainly come through and is resonating with golf fans and non-golf fans. ... People can find a personal connection to that."

Ever since he returned to the PGA Tour in early July, two months removed from the death of his father and three weeks after missing the cut at a major championship for the first time as a pro, in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Woods is again approaching invincibility.

With four straight wins that include back-to-back major championships going into the start of the Deutsche Bank Championship today in Norton, Mass., Woods recently tied Byron Nelson with 52 career PGA Tour wins. More significantly, Woods now has 12 major professional titles, trailing only Jack Nicklaus' 18.

"He is setting the stage for history, and in a superstar-driven sports culture, and in an incredibly cluttered marketplace of stars, he's once again shown how he can elevate with a remarkable mixture of personality and charisma off the course and pure remarkable golf on the course," Swangard said.

But it is different from the last time Woods ruled his sport. Unlike the 34-month stretch between the 1999 PGA and the 2002 U.S. Open when he won seven of 11 majors, including four straight to complete what was called the 'Tiger Slam," many more seem to be rooting for him.

Swangard said that some are attracted to his personality, familiar with the self-deprecating television commercials Woods has made, while others know they are part of a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness greatness." That Woods has accomplished this with a few bumps along the way makes him more endearing.

The closer Woods gets to a record that once looked unapproachable, if not unbreakable, the more fans he will attract.

Once a polarizing figure who in many eyes was the antihero to Phil Mickelson's Everyman, Woods is now appealing to a broader audience. Though Woods always draws viewers when he is in the hunt, the television ratings during the recent PGA Championship jumped a whopping 22 percent from last year when Mickelson won.

"It's been fun to watch how much he moves the needle [ratings]," said Ty Votaw, the former LPGA commissioner who now is a vice president for the PGA Tour. "As far as TV ratings, as far as fan interest, he's just a remarkably compelling figure."

The death of Earl Woods in early May after a long bout with cancer not only fueled his son's already hot inner drive, but it also brought out a touching side that only a few close friends and family members had seen over the years.

It started when Tiger Woods won last year's Masters, and broke down at the green jacket ceremony speaking of his absent and then ill father. His response in winning this year's British Open at Royal Liverpool, after his father died, was even more raw.

Woods collapsed, heaving, as his longtime caddie Steve Williams consoled him.

"I've never done that," Woods said later. "But at that moment, it just came pouring out. I was pretty bummed out after not winning the [2006] Masters, because I knew that was the last major he was ever going to see. That one hurt a little bit. And to get this one ... it's just unfortunate he wasn't here to see it."

Dennis Satyshur, who as Tom Kite's assistant on the 1997 Ryder Cup team got to be around Woods for a week in Spain, said that when he watched the scene unfold on the final hole at this year's British Open, he found a stronger attraction than ever before.

"That's why you do root for a guy like that," said Satyshur, the director of golf at Caves Valley in Owings Mills. "He's one of us. He's not a robot."

Again, the comparisons to Nicklaus are eerie. Charlie Nicklaus died when his son was 30, at a time when Jack Nicklaus was in a bit of a slump. Starting with his victory that year in the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews, Nicklaus would win 11 more majors.

"We all go through periods where we don't seem to work as hard or we're not as excited about the course we're playing. It takes something to wake you up," Nicklaus said in 2003, when Woods was in the midst of a 2 1/2 -year major championship winless drought while overhauling his swing for the second time in his career.

What also motivated Woods was hearing the whispers that his decision to dump swing coach Butch Harmon and redo his swing with Hank Haney would end his continued dominance. Or that others, most notably Mickelson and Vijay Singh, had displaced him as the world's best player.

Like before, the challengers have dispersed. Singh, who took away the No. 1 ranking from Woods at the 2004 Deutsche Bank Championship, has faded with a faulty putter and, perhaps at age 43, unforgiving middle age. Mickelson, 36, came apart on the 72nd hole of this year's U.S. Open while going for his third straight major.

The way Woods has won these past four events, particularly the two majors, should be a warning that he might not lose often for the foreseeable future. He won the British Open by hitting his driver only once, then won the PGA Championship at Medinah by hitting 5-wood off the tee. He was barely challenged down the stretch at either event.

Then, last week in Akron, Woods won on the fourth playoff hole. This, after making four consecutive bogeys Saturday for the first time in 10 years.

"I think my entire game has become more solid," Woods said yesterday at a news conference for the Deutsche Bank Championship. "I think also I have a better understanding of how to get more out of my round now, understanding how to manage my way around the golf course, how when I'm not feeling comfortable with my game, how to get it around."

Satyshur said that Nicklaus, in his prime, used to do the same thing.

"You didn't like to see Nicklaus hit a 1-iron, because it was going to be in the fairway, he wasn't going to make any mistakes, it was not as exciting," Satyshur said. "You heard the announcers at the PGA saying Tiger has kind of taken the life out of the gallery and the players by his performance. It wasn't that exciting because it was over."


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