- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It has become fashionable these days to trample on Tiger.

He arrives at this week’s 104th U.S. Open without a major victory in his last seven tries. He hasn’t won a stroke play event this season. His swing has soured, and he’s too proud to admit he made a mistake by jettisoning longtime instructor Butch Harmon. He can’t find a fairway with a map and a compass.

And guess what? He’s still the world No.1.

It’s hardly a shock Tiger Woods isn’t playing the kind of golf he played between the 1999 PGA Championship and 2002 U.S. Open. Nobody ever played that caliber of golf before — not Nicklaus, Hogan, Nelson or Jones. And nobody, including Woods, is likely to play that kind of golf again. Winning seven times in 11 major starts isn’t superb, it’s surreal.

But just as folks will say the measure of a man is best determined by his response to tribulation, not triumph, perhaps Woods is best judged as a golfer right now during one of the more tumultuous stretches of his career. Considered in that light, what Woods has accomplished this season with far less than his full ball-striking arsenal should wow the world almost as much as his full-form dominance of 2000.

“I know he’s in a huge slump. He hasn’t won a major in seven starts — think of how ludicrous that sounds,” David Duval said yesterday. “What is he, probably in the top five on the money list right now. He’s won already this year. … He’s still Number 1. The whole idea that the media and golf fans are down on Tiger is absurd.”

Obviously, Tiger is struggling mightily off the tee this season. He’s 147th on tour in driving accuracy, hitting the fairway only 58.9 percent of the time. Yet despite that enormous handicap off the tee, Woods still maintains the game’s fourth-best scoring average (69.67) and has posted a victory and six other top-10 finishes in 10 starts.

How? Because nobody squeezes more out of his ball-striking than Woods. The game has never known a more efficient player. And the stat that speaks to this efficiency more than any other is birdie conversion, the tour’s number for how often a player makes birdie when he hits a green in regulation. Woods leads the tour in the category with a rate of 38.6 percent. Since the tour began keeping the stat in 1980, only one player has finished a season with a rate above 36.5: Bob Heintz (37.7) in 2002.

What this means is that when Woods gets an opportunity, he makes the most of it, thanks to the combination of a platinum putting stroke and an irrepressible resolve.

“I’ve always felt that where the rest of us see a crack of opportunity, Tiger sees a chasm,” Padraig Harrington said earlier this week. “He’s the best of maximizing the game he brings to the course on any given day.”

That’s why Woods never cards a big number or misses a cut. He’s the master of turning a ball-striking 75 into a scorecard 71. And this season, without the booming drives that once seduced fans and media at his disposal, he’s doing it courtesy of the true strength of his game — a mystifying short game and his uber-grinder’s scintillating scrambling ability.

“You should have seen the way he played the back nine today,” Jack Nicklaus said after the final round of the recent Memorial in which Woods finished third. “He hit no fairways and three greens and still shot even par. Now that’s golf.”

As for those who criticize his flatter swing recently and Harmon-free approach, Woods has heard enough.

“A lot of times they don’t have an idea of what I’m working on,” said Woods, who has been telestrated ad nauseam the last several months. “What I think is pretty funny is when [TV analysts] take a shot I hit in 2000 and compare it to a shot I hit this year. You don’t know if I’m hitting a fade or a draw, whether I’m trying to hit it high or low. You don’t know what kind of lie I have, and you try and compare those two swings, and it’s totally different. … Maybe it’s good TV, but it’s really pretty silly.”

As for Harmon, perhaps Woods could use another set of eyes right now. But he never felt particularly comfortable relying on another person for his success. It’s simply not in his nature. Until he wins a major without Harmon by his side, people will criticize the split. But eventually, when Woods rediscovers his swing with the driver and that day is nigh (see 1998 swing changes), the rest of the golf world will have reason to cringe. Because then what they will be facing is a completely self-sufficient, brilliant ball-striker with an even sharper short game than the one in 2000.

But until then, Woods is a marvel. After all, how many players contend while operating at 80 percent capacity?

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