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Grating Expectations Seven tournaments without a victory isn't a slump, but Tiger Woods has set the bar so high that even a good year can look bad

Atlas shrugged. Superman got his cape caught in the phone-booth
door. Mighty Casey struck out. And Tiger Woods failed to win yet
again, this time at the Buick Invitational, which was won on
Sunday by Phil Mickelson. What's next? The end of death and

Clearly, all's not right in the world--the world of golf, that is.
Woods hasn't won a PGA Tour event since September, having gone
seven starts without a victory, his longest drought in two years.
Before the Buick there was some loose talk about a slump, which
at the time seemed ludicrous, but after Woods's fourth-place
finish at San Diego's Torrey Pines Golf Course on Sunday, this
notion must be taken more seriously. It should now be considered
merely silly.

You want a slump? Take a peek at Ben Crenshaw's record. Since the
start of the 1998 season he has made the cut in three of 43
tournaments. That is a slump. Woods isn't within two zip codes of
a slump. In his last seven tournaments he has had five top fives
and finished no worse than 13th. For most players, this would be
a career year. Moreover, to disparage Woods's recent play is to
devalue all that came before it. Golf simply isn't as easy as he
made it look. "People are calling for his head, but they don't
know what the hell they're talking about," says Jose Maria
Olazabal, who played with Woods during the first two rounds in
San Diego. "The guy is playing excellent golf. He doesn't win a
couple of tournaments and it's like he has committed a crime.
Don't be so hard on him."

Point taken, but Woods clearly isn't playing at the otherworldly
level he reached last year. His troubles, such as they are, began
last fall. When he ended his record 2000 season with three
straight missed opportunities for victory--third at the Disney
National Car Rental Golf Classic in Orlando, second at the Tour
Championship in Atlanta and tied for fifth in the American
Express Championship at Valderrama--it was easy to excuse. He was
tired. There was nothing left to play for. Can't win 'em all.
Then 2001 rolled around, and things began to get squirrely.

Woods showed up at the Mercedes Championships, the second week of
January in Maui, with his edge dulled by a month of scuba diving,
blackjack and an ill-advised experiment with peroxide. The only
thing worse than his ball striking in that tournament was his
putting. He finished tied for eighth, six strokes behind the
winner. He played so poorly that this most meticulous, methodical
of 25-year-olds broke from his usual schedule and added a trip to
the Phoenix Open two weeks later, which offered him a chance to
work out a few kinks. Instead, he counted 14 lip-outs over the
first two days and a 73 on Friday that snapped his Tour record of
52 consecutive rounds at par or better. Woods finished 15 strokes
back of the winner, in a tie for fifth.

Next up was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where the
going would get more hazardous. On the eve of the tournament
Woods collided with a Sharpie-wielding member of the autograph
stalkerazzi and wrenched his left knee. Favoring the leg, he
finished 13th at Pebble, his worst showing since last July's
Western Open.

From Pebble, Woods limped into San Diego. The whispering had
started in Phoenix, mostly in jest, but by the time the Buick
rolled around, the Slump had become a bona fide news story, in
part because the symmetry was so obvious. Last year Woods came to
the Buick having won six starts in a row, a streak surpassed only
once in golf history. This time he rolled into town having "lost"
his last six tournaments. "It's not a slump," Woods said the day
before play began, waving off a swarm of reporters as if they
were so many mosquitoes buzzing around his head. "If I can go
[six] tournaments without a victory and people call it a slump,
then it must mean I've played some pretty good golf."

If Woods faces impossible expectations this season, it's his own
doing. He has wowed the world so unfailingly over the past two
years that there was no reason to believe he wouldn't blow away
the field last Thursday, just to prove a point. Instead he laid
an egg, shooting a 70 that featured a chunked chip on the 6th
hole, which led to a double bogey, and a ghastly 34 putts for
the round. His shoddy work with his putter has been all too
familiar in 2001. Last year Woods ranked second in putts per
green in regulation; his 1.717 average was the fourth lowest
since the Tour went to a per-hole scoring system in 1986. As
Woods headed into the Buick, his putting average this year
ranked 129th.

"The last two years he putted better than anybody has ever
putted, even on a computer game," says two-time U.S. Open champ
Lee Janzen, Woods's friend and neighbor in Orlando. "If he putts
like a mere mortal, he lets the rest of us back into the ball
game." With typical stubbornness, Woods has maintained that he
has been hitting good putts that simply haven't found the hole.

During the second round of the Buick, Woods finally began to find
his touch on the bouncy poa annua greens, taking only 26 putts.
So, this being golf, his long game deserted him. The guy who set
a Tour record last year by reaching 75.2% of greens in regulation
hit only 61.1% on Friday. Early on, his swing was so loose--he was
level par through eight holes--that Torrey Pines was atwitter with
the possibility that Woods would miss a cut for the second time
in his pro career. He scrambled for a back-nine 32 that gave him
a round of 67 and brought him home five shots under the cut, but
The San Diego Union-Tribune couldn't let go of the tantalizing
story. Headline in Saturday's paper: WOODS RECOVERS TO AVOID
MISSING THE CUT. Idling in 19th place, five back of coleaders
Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, Woods said, with typical
understatement, "I left a lot of shots out there."

It was more of the same on Saturday, yet after another
up-and-down 67, Woods looked ahead to the final round with
typical detachment. "You can't force winning," he said. "You have
to go out and play hard and stay patient. I know, because I've
been through this before."

Indeed, between July 1997 and February 1999 Woods won only one
Tour event--in what could truly be called a slump--while he made
the celebrated overhaul of his swing. Throughout that dry spell
he showed remarkable composure, repeating endlessly that he was
sacrificing short-term results for long-term excellence. That the
gamble paid off so spectacularly has left Woods virtually
impervious to both criticism and self-doubt, and the rush of
victories that followed that fallow period goes a long way toward
explaining the nonchalance he has shown during his recent
winlessness. "There's no scenario he's not prepared for," says
Janzen. "He knew 10 years ago all this was going to happen. It's
the rest of us who have to figure things out as we go. Tiger's
already preprogrammed."

Early on Sunday, Woods looked like the final-round Terminator of
old as he birdied 2 and 3 to leapfrog into second place, only
one stroke behind Mickelson. However, then he began making the
little errors that have dogged him of late. On the 4th hole he
fired at a flag tucked into a protected corner of a severely
pitched green, and after missing on the short side, he had to
scramble to make par. On the par-5 6th Woods was in perfect
position off the tee, but he jacked a two-iron 20 yards over the
green and had to settle for a momentum-crippling par. After he
failed to birdie the 9th hole--another pushover par-5--he made
the turn two back, in fourth place. His last gasp was at 18,
where he missed a 20-foot eagle putt from the fringe that would
have tied him for the lead. Woods wound up fourth, two shots out
of a wild Mickelson-Love-Frank Lickliter playoff, which
Mickelson won on the third extra hole with a double bogey to
Lickliter's triple.

"I'm not too disappointed," Woods said when it was all over. "The
name of the game is scoring, and I shot three straight 67s, even
when I wasn't playing my best. I've gotten better every week. My
iron play is getting sharper, my putting's coming around--I rolled
it well the last three days." Then, with a touch of mischief, he
added, "Hopefully I'll keep getting better until the first week
of April."

This attitude may be the key to understanding Woods's game. He's
smart enough to know that he's not going to get all the good
bounces this season, as he did in 2000. Instead of chasing his
tail in a doomed effort to replicate last year's victory total,
he's emphasizing one event, the Masters, his favorite tournament.
Augusta means even more to him this time, because a victory would
give him the disputed carryover Grand Slam. Says his father,
Earl, "Is Tiger bored of winning the Buick Invitationals of the
world? Heck no. He's too much of a competitor. But frankly,
Augusta is the goal for the early part of this season. Every
other tournament is an interim goal."

Until the Masters, expect Woods to continue to gut out strong
finishes, even as he gropes to find his form. His fellow
competitors will brace themselves accordingly. "If this is a
slump, I hate to think what's going to happen when he breaks out
of it," says Janzen. "Put it this way: Nobody thinks Tiger's run
is over. By any means."


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK CHOPPING WOODS He says he's happy with his game, but an errant chip last Friday vexed Woods.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK ROUGH TREATMENT No sooner did Woods get his putting under control than the rest of his game went awry.

Early on, WOODS'S SWING WAS SO LOOSE that Torrey Pines was
atwitter with the possibility that he would miss the cut.