LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England Tiger Woods simply smiled yesterday when answering the first of a bevy of questions about his recent “slump.”
“When I play well, I think it is blown out of proportion a little bit, and I think when I play poorly it is blown out of proportion. The real truth is somewhere in between,” said Woods, who has finished out of the top 10 in three consecutive starts for the first time since June 1998. He arrived at the 130th British Open to a slew of sensationalized tabloid headlines like “Tepid Tiger.”
“I am not struggling to break 90,” Woods continued. “I am doing all right. I am still shooting under par. I am contending in tournaments, just not on the back nine with a chance to win. But I am kind of there on Saturday and Sunday. It is just not quite all the way there.”
The truth of the matter is that Woods is just a month removed from the most torrid stretch of play the game has seen. And after his bid for a fifth consecutive major title fizzled last month in Tulsa, Okla., after an opening 74, his yearlong flame of competitive fury simply fizzled.
Though Woods wouldn’t admit as much yesterday, he must have been a bit burned out after his 12-month rampage. He needed some time to decompress, and he’s taken that time during the season, at the expense of his last two starts. After the U.S. Open, he didn’t hit a ball until the Wednesday pro-am at the Buick Classic, opened with a 75 and barely made the cut before shaking off the rust to battle back for a 16th-place finish.
He then spent a week fishing in Alaska with Mark O’Meara before traveling to Chicago for the Western Open. Once in Chicago, he spent little time preparing at Cog Hill. Instead, he spent Monday and Tuesday hanging out at nearby Kemper Lakes with injured pal Michael Jordan. Once again, a rusty Woods opened with a damning first round (73), snapping his 9-iron in frustration en route to a water-logged double-bogey at the 18th. He recovered only enough over the weekend to finish 20th. Last week, Woods spent more time trying to relax, taking his customary pre-British Open trip to Ireland for a little links golf and a lot of salmon fishing.
“The biggest thing I have really enjoyed about fishing is the different aspects to it, the different places I have been able to go and see and enjoy and the peacefulness of it, the tranquility of it all,” Woods said of his primary hobby. And as Woods said at the Western Open, “Not too many fish ask for autographs.”
Translation: Tiger might have been remiss in his practice routine over the last month, but it isn’t because he’s lazy; he’s just been recharging his batteries for another electric run.
The 25-year-old’s energy and focus seem to have returned for his claret jug run at Lytham & St. Annes. Woods played a late-afternoon practice round on the 6,905-yard, par-71 layout Monday, his first Monday round since the U.S. Open. And he got up at 5:15 a.m. yesterday for a first-off practice round with O’Meara, Thomas Bjorn and Australian comer Adam Scott, beating the weather front that lashed the property with heavy winds and a steady rain all afternoon.
“I played with him at the U.S. Open in the first two rounds at the U.S. Open, and he did not play badly, but he did not play his best golf,” said Bjorn, the British Open’s dark-horse Dane. “I see some changes in his game since then… . His strike looks a lot better. He looks like he is right back where he is at his best.
“He looks very confident. He looks very relaxed. When he is like he is right now, he is very difficult to compete with. He looks better than he has done ever, I think. He looks very, very good at the moment.”
That’s a terrifying thought for the would-be challengers to the world No. 1.
Still, some would say Lytham doesn’t suit Woods’ strengths. With its profusion of fairway bunkers scattered at every possible distance from the tee, the layout favors accuracy over power. Of the last eight winners at Lytham, only one (Seve Ballesteros in 1979 and 1988) was considered a long knocker relative to the field. And with nasty conditions in the heavy rough exacerbated by the rain, Woods will have virtually no chance to execute the flailing, one-armed, power escape shots from the rough for which he has become famous. In fact, Lytham seems likely to behave more like a slightly soggy Shinnecock Hills than a conventional, rock-hard British Open links. And at the 1995 U.S. Open, of course, Shinnecock gave us the shortest, straightest champion in recent major championship history in Corey Pavin.
Woods, however, scoffs at the notion that the course doesn’t fit his skills.
“I get a big kick out of hearing you guys talk about that kind of stuff,” Woods said. “For any player, I don’t care if it is a short course or a long one, if you are playing well, you are going to score well whether it is ‘set up’ for you or not. The guys out here are pros. If they are playing well, whether the course is brutally hard or incredibly easy, they are going to score… . You know, I am starting to hit it pretty well.”