- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

HAVEN, Wis. — Perhaps Tiger Woods finally has made the turn.

Golf’s slumping sultan had an easier air about him yesterday as he addressed the assembled media at Whistling Straits, the site of this week’s 86th PGA Championship.

Woods’ press conferences usually are tedious affairs. The game’s privacy-guarding No.1 sidesteps questions like some Nike-clad matador and repeats the same tired mantras about the state of his game. Given his tight-lipped performances at Shinnecock Hills and Royal Troon and the fact that his winless skein at the majors is on the verge of double digits, a defensive, thought-choking tour de force from Woods yesterday wouldn’t have been a surprise.

But the 28-year-old star almost qualified as charming during his 30 minutes behind the microphone, delivering a handful of well-timed one-liners. Instead of lamenting the hazards of overzealous fans, he chuckled about a nut who literally emerged from Lake Michigan and swam ashore on the second hole yesterday seeking an autograph. He talked openly about the travails of self-doubt. And he delivered the day’s most thoughtful analysis of Whistling Straits.

“If the wind blows like this, I don’t think I’ve played a golf course this difficult,” said Woods, who never traffics in sensationalism or absolutes, after completing his third practice round on the 7,514-yard, par-72 layout strung along Lake Michigan. “You rarely ever face any shot into the wind or downwind. Everything is either off the left or off the right, which makes it very difficult. There’s not one hole that you feel like there’s no way you can physically make a double bogey on this hole. At all major championships, there are always some holes where you think you’d have to really work to make a double. But that’s just not the way it is here.

“Here, there’s a possibility of making double with a marginal shot, not a bad shot, on any hole. You get a bad bounce, and all of a sudden you’re down off one of those cliffs or you get into a rut off in a bunker, and you have absolutely no golf shot. I’ve never seen that at any other golf course.”

When an eight-time major champion not given to hyperbole dubs a course the toughest on the planet, people tend to listen. Some observers invoked the old Nicklaus principle, suggesting Woods was giving himself a ready excuse for a poor performance this week. But that’s not the vibe Tiger was giving off yesterday. While he did joke, “If I was an 18-handicapper, I wouldn’t want to play here,” Woods seemed excited about the week’s prospects.

Perhaps that’s because the longest layout in major history would seem to play to his strengths. Perhaps it’s because of his Thursday-Friday pairing with Vijay Singh and John Daly, the same duo he battled down the stretch two weeks ago at the Buick Open.

“It’s certainly going to be interesting with the spectators. I think there might be a couple out there,” Woods said, grinning. “I don’t think I’ve ever played with J.D. before in a regular competition. … I think you add all three, with Vijay playing as well as he is and J.D. and myself, and I think it will be a pretty great atmosphere.”

More than likely Tiger’s suddenly relaxed demeanor can be attributed to the positive signs he’s seeing within his game. Woods enjoyed his most consistent outing of the season in his last start at the Buick Open, carding rounds of 67-68-66-66 to finish one behind Daly and two behind Singh at Warwick Hills.

He’s settling in to a comfy relationship with his new driver, regaining both distance (301.8 yards average) and some accuracy with the larger-headed, graphite-shafted Nike Ignite to which he switched last month.

And he finally seems to have solved the technical swing riddles that baffled him for the better part of the last two years, slowing down his move somewhat and slightly softening the impact of his extremely active hands.

All of that has helped Woods begin regaining the epic confidence level he achieved while ravaging the golf world between 1999 and 2002.

“Every one of us has moments where we have doubts, and we’ve got to overcome them,” said Woods, who conceded his confidence level had waned over the last two years. “That’s part of the game. That’s part of playing sports. Everybody goes through that.”

Woods then compared this season with 1998, when he was a virtual nonfactor in the majors, sacrificing the year to make serious swing changes. He has sacrificed this season, too, learning to tweak his swing without the help of longtime guru Butch Harmon.

“This is very similar to that period I went through in ‘98,” Woods said. “It feels very similar in that things are starting to come together. It’s very exciting, just like it was when things were starting to jell toward the end of ‘98 and the beginning of ‘99.”

Everyone knows what happened when Woods’ game jelled in 1999, producing a four-year run that included seven major victories in 11 starts and an outrageous 29 PGA Tour wins. In fact, the rest of the game’s elite players live in constant fear of the return of that Woods, the player who was both confident and charismatic, relaxed and relentless.

Perhaps it’s trembling time for those would-be rivals. Because after many months in exile, that was precisely the version of Woods who presented himself yesterday at Whistling Straits.

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