- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

So much for Tiger Woods' "slump." I put the word slump in quotation marks because, well, I never really thought he was going through one (and ar-gued as much in a column last month). No, what Tiger was in the midst of was a winless streak, and, knowing him, that streak figured to end sooner rather than later.

And indeed it has. Back-to-back victories at Bay Hill and, yesterday, the Players Championship have shooed away all the Woods Wonderers. Suddenly, Tiger has more momentum heading into the Masters than he has ever had, which should make for an interesting weekend two weeks hence.

Tiger, it should be clear by now, isn't just rewriting the record book, he's rewriting the dictionary, too. By completing the career Grand Slam before the age of 25 and winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes he has redefined the term "greatness." And by managing only a second, a third, a fourth

and two fifths in eight tour events leading up to Bay Hill, he has redefined the term "slump."

The "slump" business really got to him. (Good to know something does; makes him seem more human.) Did you catch his interview with NBC's Jimmy Roberts yesterday after he putted out on the 18th green? His Tigerness wasn't exactly jolly. When Roberts asked him what winning the Players meant to him, Tiger said, without a trace of humor, "It means my slump's over."

Obviously, Woods doesn't have much patience for those who would cast aspersions on his game. The last time he behaved in such a fashion was at Augusta last year, when Golf Channel analyst Mark Lye among others suggested Tiger was two far back after 36 holes to win (nine shots, to be exact). As it turned out, Tiger wasn't able to catch up, despite finishing 68-69. But that didn't keep Lye from incurring the wrath of Woods and his handlers (as he wrote later in Sports Illustrated).

Like all great competitors, Tiger will use any slight real or imagined to spur him to loftier heights. Tell him he's in a "slump," and he'll reel off consecutive victories. Tell him a Grand Slam isn't possible in the modern age, and he'll not only win the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA in succession, he'll bag the Players Championship, too.

This sets up a fascinating story line for the Masters. Because now, you see, Tiger isn't only gunning for a Backdoor Slam (four straight majors, but in two calendar years), he's shooting for the Fab Five (the four majors plus the Players, the so-called fifth major in a row). Amazing.

I remember Tiger talking about the Grand Slam one time at Augusta. He didn't sound at all daunted by it. "Phil Mickelson won four tournaments last year," he reasoned. "Well, if you win the right tournaments, that's enough for the Slam. You need to peak at the right times, though like [Jack] Nicklaus used to do and have a lot of luck on your side."

Tiger has developed that ability Mickelson's still working on it to peak at the right times. In fact, given the way he played earlier this year, when he was in his "slump," you have to wonder if he wasn't gearing everything to the Masters (and his bid for Backdoor Slam). It's only natural for him to start looking at these non-majors as mere tuneups for the Big Ones. If he wins 'em, fine. If he doesn't, that's OK, too. After all, he's playing for history now.

Speaking of Nicklaus, what would Woods do without him? Answer: He might already be running out of mountains to climb. Tiger's next major championship will be his sixth as many as Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino won (and one less than Arnold Palmer did). And he's still only 25 years old. But Jack's 20 majors (including two U.S. Amateurs) should keep the kid busy for at least another decade.

Notice I said "should."

At least Tiger's fellow golfers are putting up more of a fight this year. A year ago, they appeared to almost surrender whenever he got out to a comfortable lead in a tournament. You don't win the U.S. Open by 15 and the British by eight unless there's a certain amount of packing it in by the rest of the field.

That said, consider what happened yesterday. On the 14th hole, Vijay Singh, Tiger's closest competitor, had a calamitous triple bogey to fall four strokes off the pace with four holes to play. Did Vijay pack up his bag and head for the clubhouse? Not even close. He rallied with an eagle on 16 and a birdie on 17, forcing Tiger to sweat out his tee shot on the Island Hole. It darn near went in the drink.

Singh is certainly ready to defend his title at Augusta. Two-time champ Bernhard Langer, who finished third in the Players and shot 68-68-67 in the last three rounds, might even make some noise. And, of course, Tiger will be there, too trying to avoid falling into another "slump."


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