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Original Issue

Spelling It Out Forget those questions about Tiger Woods. Here's why he's doing just fine

What's wrong with Tiger Woods? I'm asked that question nearly
every day. It comes primarily from people who didn't really
follow golf until a transcendental African-American kid stepped
inside the ropes a few years ago and rearranged the game's
features. To the newly initiated, when Woods doesn't win every
other week, the world is off its axis.

At the moment these fans are going through a sort of withdrawal.
After winning six times in his first 10 months as a
professional, Woods hasn't won a tournament in the U.S. since
last July. He was dusted in the Ryder Cup. His stretch drives
this season have all ended in wrecks. He was outputted by Phil
Mickelson in the Mercedes, outwedged by Billy Mayfair in Los
Angeles and simply outplayed in San Diego and at Doral. Stars
don't get whipped this often, do they?

The answer is, yes, in golf they do. The game is about losing as
much as it is about winning, which is one reason the sport has
had very few true stars.

The cognoscenti understand that Woods is doing just fine, with
two seconds, a third and a ninth in his four Tour finishes in
'98. The mainliners tuned in to the Golf Channel saw him come
from eight strokes back in Thailand to beat Ernie Els in sudden
death. Woods is always there, which is all that can be asked of
a first-rate golfer. Not only that, he's a more complete,
controlled player than he was a year ago. From ultralong but
crooked with the driver, Woods is now ultralong and straight.
(He leads the Tour's total driving category, which combines
distance and accuracy.) The wild child who flew iron shots over
greens is now consistently pin-high with his approaches, the
trajectory of his ball lower and more predictable due to a
refined, more reliable technique. Woods's bad shots are much
better, and his decision-making has improved markedly.

Still, he has shown an unexpected vulnerability, especially on
the greens. For all the clutch putts he has holed, the
whispering has started that Woods is a less-than-gifted putter.
Woods himself allows that he's "streaky."

It may be that Woods is feeling the effects, understandably, of
his new world, which has brought him so much money, so many
expectations and so much criticism. "Who will win? The
machine...or the youth who has just entered its maw?" Gary Smith
asked in a story anointing Woods SI's 1996 Sportsman of the
Year. Those who know the machine well fret. "I tell him to
loosen up--my god, he should be having fun doing what he's
doing," says Michael Jordan. Jack Nicklaus wonders, "How long
can he keep fueling the fires to want to just win, win, win,
win, win? How many years can he do that?" Earlier this month at
Doral, Mike Berardino, in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,
wrote that something in Woods's eyes had changed from "before he
had his green jacket, before he had a piece of the All-Star
Cafe.... Is that look gone for good?" Such scrutiny comes with
the territory, and Woods is constantly up for review, because
trying to be the best golfer of all time allows almost no margin
for error.

In fact, the question What's wrong with Tiger? should be
replaced by Is Tiger on track? The next checkpoint comes in
April at Augusta. Woods already has a Nicklausian outlook on the
major championships. All through his amateur career he geared
his year to peak for the big events, and at least one
knowledgeable observer believes that Woods can win one of them,
the Masters, again. "I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see him
do this year exactly what he did last year," says Nicklaus. "In
fact, I expect him to."

If Woods does, What's wrong with Tiger? will not be asked
again--not, that is, until the next major he fails to win. When
that happens, he should take the question as a compliment.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Fans wearing t-shirts that spell out 'TIGER!']

"I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see him do this year what he
did last year," says Nicklaus.