- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

What's wrong with Tiger?

The entire golf world seems to be searching for an answer to the game's most compelling question.

The simple response is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Tiger Woods. As the 25-year-old master said after his latest disappointment at last week's PGA Championship, "That's just golf."

What Woods meant, of course, is that golf has never been a sport that lends itself to dominance. You can't play defense in golf. And the notion that one player is so superior to the 150 or so others who tee it up every week that he can make up for that fact defies logic.

The game's talent pool has never been deeper at the professional level. And if a Retief Goosen, much less a David Duval, uncorks a week's worth of magic on you, there's not much you can do other than sit back and applaud. David Toms jars a 243-yard 5-wood, and Phil Mickelson goes home empty-handed after a better ball-striking week.

Just take a cursory look at the legendary career of Jack Nicklaus; even the Golden One never truly dominated golf. Between his first major victory in 1962 and his last in 1986, Nicklaus played in 96 majors and won 18 times. While the figure is staggering relative to the sport, it still means Nicklaus won just 18.8 percent of the majors played during his prime.

Woods, exactly even with Nicklaus' pace with six majors in his first five professional seasons, is 6-for-20 (30 percent).

But the particular circumstances of Woods' current slump don't seem to jive with such a pat explanation.

For one thing, Woods has spent his entire career mocking the game's odds. For another, his slump arrived after a torrid start to the season, highlighted by the greatest accomplishment in the history of the game his successful completion of the Tiger Slam at the Masters.

Nothing that happened before this year's U.S. Open presaged the devolution which was to follow the worst five-tournament stretch of finishes in his career. In fact, in his six starts before the U.S. Open, Woods finished 1st, 1st, 1st, tied for 3rd, 1st and 1st. In his five starts since, he has finished T12th, T16th, T20th, T25th and T29th. That's not a precipitous drop, that's absolutely Himalayan.

So what happened?

Well, statistically speaking, Woods has played very pedestrian golf in first rounds during the slump, basically eliminating himself from contention with an ugly opening score in each of his last five starts (see adjoining chart). In each of those events, his average score over the last three rounds (69.3) has been considerably lower than his average opener (73.2).

Tournament courses aren't set up to play particularly tough on Thursday; in fact, average scores suggest quite the contrary.

So what do all these numbers mean?

Woods is showing up unprepared to play.

For those familiar with Woods' normally obsessive practice regimen, this is odd behavior indeed.

After his opener at the U.S. Open at Southern Hills (74), most assumed that he just had a poor day on a course that didn't particularly suit his strengths. After another poor start at the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes (71), most assumed the drive for five straight majors had worn him down, and Woods wasn't working on his game much because he needed some time to unwind after a year of mastery.

But at last week's PGA Championship, which was held on a brutally long layout with relatively wide fairways that seemed perfectly tailored to his game, nobody could understand his preparatory indifference or his pedestrian play.

Before every other major he had ever played in the U.S., Woods had spent the week before honing his game in Orlando, Fla., with swing instructor Butch Harmon. But before last week's major, Woods gave Harmon the week off.

He pulled out of the Buick Open, much to the chagrin of his $6 million per year sponsor, reportedly to prepare himself for the PGA. But he admitted in Atlanta that his preparation at home involved little more than reacquainting himself with the TV remote.

Why the inactivity? Because Woods claimed he was weary. Judging by the fact that Woods hadn't played in any of the three events since the British Open, most observers found this claim hard to believe.

There was, however, another claim circulating among certain circles of the golf community that most observers found more plausible.

At the British Open, it was reported in no less than six publications that Woods had been spotted in more than one Las Vegas casino on more than one occasion with ex-pro volleyball player and current supermodel Gabrielle Reece.

Both are Nike clients who met when Woods joined Phil Knight's stable of athletes in 1996. Reece was engaged at the time to surfing legend Laird Hamilton, whom she married a year later. But the two have been separated for the last three months, an estrangement that started shortly after Reece transferred her hopes of becoming an LPGA Tour player to the care of Harmon's teaching.

In the July issue of Travel and Leisure Golf, Alan Shipnuck wrote a story about Reece's addiction to golf in which she is described as Woods' "range partner."

Coincidentally, Woods' competitive decline seems to dovetail quite nicely with his range-partnering and casino-crawling with Reece.

Perhaps Woods hasn't had such a lousy summer after all.

It's important to remember that Woods has led an incredibly sheltered life. His one and only serious girlfriend on record to date was a shy coed from Stanford named Joanna Jagoda, whom he broke up with after last season.

No offense to Jagoda, but she lacks the aesthetic pizzazz of Reece, a 6-foot-3, 31-year-old stunner who was once named one of the world's five most beautiful women by Elle magazine. For those who have seen them both, the disparity is something on the order of comparing Uncle Joe's Chop and Chunk to Augusta National.

Now, the entire Woods camp was mum when questioned on the Reece front last week. But maybe, just maybe, golf's titan has discovered there's something even more inspiring than a 255-yard 2-iron that grabs green like a lob wedge.

Maybe that's why Woods was in such a comparatively mellow mood in Atlanta after finishing 0-for-the summer in the majors around which he once based his life.

Dan Jenkins, the dean of golf writers in terms of talent and knowledge, has long stated that "the only thing that can stop Tiger is an injury or a bad marriage."

You have to wonder where Jenkins would rate a leggy supermodel.

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