- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Everybody knows you don’t use the “S” word around a golfer.

Tiger Woods was cruising through his interview at Olympia Fields yesterday, looking and sounding every bit the world No.1 and eight-time major maven, when some irreverent scribe had the audacity to use the one term certain to rile his Swooshness: slump.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a slump, no,” said Woods, who will begin his U.S. Open title defense tomorrow on the little-known layout in the Chicago suburbs. “I think my overall career has been pretty good. Ever since I came out of the womb and started playing golf, I’ve had a pretty good career.”

For the 27-year-old Woods, who has had a pretty forgettable career with a microphone in his hand, that’s a Hall of Fame sound bite.

Fact is, Woods gets a little edgy when the conversation turns to concerns over his recent form. Since collecting his record-tying fourth consecutive victory at Bay Hill in mid-March, Woods has walked away empty-handed from the Players Championship (tied for 11th), Masters (T15), German Open (T29) and Memorial (T4).

Nobody still in possession of a handful of brain cells would label such a stretch a slump. But in the warped world of outrageous expectations Tiger has fashioned with his dominance, even the slightest stumble raises eyebrows.

“My game is pretty good, I think,” Woods said. “I didn’t make any putts over in Germany. If you saw the greens, you’d understand. And then at Memorial I hit the ball just as good. The greens were perfect, and I made some putts. I just unfortunately had that little block of holes where I went for wads.”

“Wads,” in case you didn’t know, is what you call a front-nine 42 at Muirfield Village on moving day. Or maybe it’s a final-round double-bogey at No.3 in the Masters. Suffice it to say, it’s an irrecoverably big number at an inopportune time. And lately, Woods has had a nasty case of those wads.

Tiger would never admit it, perhaps because neither vulnerability nor negativity are part of the Woods way, but the game has been a bit of a struggle for him of late. How else do you explain last week’s intensive practice sessions with Butch Harmon? Two months ago at Augusta National, Tiger told the world he was no longer working with Harmon. There was no animosity between the two. Tiger simply insinuated Harmon already had imparted all the knowledge Woods needed to “self-correct” his swing.

Then there’s Woods’ equipment changes. When Phil Mickelson commented last winter that Woods was playing with inferior technology, the golf world wrote it off as the ranting of a jealous lesser. Six months later, Woods has put a new Nike ball in play (starting in Germany), working with Nike on an answer to Titleist’s Pro-V line.

“When I first came out here, I was hitting 3-woods farther than most guys were hitting driver,” said Woods, who has dropped to 35th on Tour in driving distance this season (291.7 yards). “[The new ball] goes farther, and it spins more on the greens. Hey, it works. I’m pleased at the signs it’s showing.”

Apparently, he’s not completely happy with his Nike driver. Otherwise, it’s unlikely he would have experimented with a TaylorMade model at the German Open.

Then there’s the business of one disconcerting stat: Dating back to 1999, Woods has never ranked worse than fifth in greens in regulation. Last season he led the Tour in the category by finding the putting surface with 74 percent of his approaches. This season he’s slumped (sorry, Tiger) to 38th on Tour in GIR (67 percent).

None of these facts would bode particularly well for Woods if this week’s Open were being staged at a big hitter’s park like Pebble Beach or Bethpage. On a dogleg-crazed layout like Olympia Fields, it’s even less comforting.

“You’re not beat to death with length,” Masters champion Mike Weir said of the 7,190-yard, par-70 layout. “There are some holes that are very long, but it’s not each and every hole. So I think you’re going to see a good mix of players in contention this week compared to last year.”

Designed by two-time British Open champion Willie Park Jr. in 1923, Olympia Fields is a complete stranger to this week’s field. Though the site has played host to three major championships, the last was the 1961 PGA Championship well before most of this week’s competitors were born.

According to most players experiencing the course for the first time, the layout’s teeth are in its vast, undulating greens, which are far more canted than Bethpage’s fairly straightforward set. Most players have chosen Southern Hills or Winged Foot as the recent major tests most akin to Olympia Fields. A quick look at the record books shows you Tiger was a nonfactor in both of those majors, finishing T12 at Southern Hills (2001 U.S. Open) and T29 at Winged Foot (1997 PGA).

Of course, none of these issues pulls Woods down from his pedestal as pre-tournament favorite. But he’s certainly not the no-brainer pick he was last year at Bethpage.

“Yeah, I think when you go to certain courses they just fit your eye,” Woods said when asked why no U.S. Open champion has successfully defended his title since Curtis Strange in 1989. “All of a sudden the next year it’s a completely different golf course.”

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