- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Tiger is pure Cheshire Cat these days.

The planet’s No. 1 golfer loped into the interview room at the 87th PGA Championship yesterday, cozied into a wing-backed chair and spent 45 minutes doling out grins and luxuriating in the media’s barely contained combination of adoration and awe.

Never before in a major championship setting had Woods looked so comfortable, smiled so often, commented with such candor or enjoyed such an easy rapport with the press.

Gone were the last vestiges of his rancor with the media over two years of second-guessing his swing changes. Gone were his customary formulaic responses. There was no longer any touchy subject to dodge nor any problem to pinpoint.

Woods was the picture of confidence — all of it genuine, none of it forced.

And why not?

Over the last five months, Woods has reclaimed the throne as golf’s unquestioned king. He snapped his 10-major drought at the Masters.

He overtook ageless Vijay Singh for the top slot in golf’s world rankings just before the U.S. Open, then put their seesaw tussle at the top to rest with a runner-up finish at Pinehurst.

He silenced his few remaining swing-change skeptics with a five-stroke victory at last month’s British Open.

And he rolls into Baltusrol looking to become the first player to hit the Slam trifecta for a second time, the season that started with so much chatter about golf’s Big Five having resolved into one unwavering Woodsian roar.

“It’s been a pretty solid year,” said Woods, chuckling at his own understatement. “The success I’ve had this year has been fantastic for my confidence because there’s nothing like reaping some of the rewards of your hard work. I’m starting to get that now, and that’s exciting.”

Amazingly, there isn’t much hype surrounding Woods’ attempt to match his three-major outburst of 2000. Only one other player has won three majors in a season: Ben Hogan in 1953.

And yet the buzz around Baltusrol is remarkably understated. Nobody expects the kind of massive galleries that mobbed Woods in Louisville during his drive for a triple at the 2000 PGA at Valhalla. And Woods isn’t smothered with the kind of fan and media attention he received when major golf last visited the immediate New York City area for the U.S. Open in 2002 (Bethpage).

“I think the atmosphere is nowhere near what it was in 2000 because I had won the U.S. Open by 15 [shots] and the British Open by eight — 23 shots in two tournaments is pretty good,” said Woods. “On top of that, I’ve done this before. I’ve won three majors in one year, so the novelty factor is not there anymore.”

Nope. In just five spectacular months, Woods has made everyone forget the fact that he entered the season in a 30-month Slam slump. For the general public, his major victories, of which there are now 10, are once again more expected than anticipated.

And even his fellow competitors, most of whom spent the last three years talking about how the field had closed the performance gap on Woods, have returned to the quasi-genuflection of 2000.

“He definitely has a slight mark on the rest of the field, that’s for sure,” said World No.8 Padraig Harrington. “Everybody looks to see how Tiger is doing. It’s a natural reaction.”

As for the state of his game relative to 2000, Woods is brutally honest. He rates his iron-play and short game as better, his driving as worse (10-20 yards longer but with far less accuracy) and his putting as less consistent.

“Usually, I’m a pretty good putter day in and day out,” he said. “But this is one of those weird years where I either putt great or I don’t putt well at all.”

Exhibit A in that regard is obviously this year’s U.S. Open, where he finished first in the field in greens in regulation (54 of 72) but next to last in putting (1.78). If Woods had made any putts at Pinehurst, “Cambo” would still be an abbreviation of Cambodia, the Grand Slam would be on at Baltusrol and you’d need SCI clearance or a whale-sized wallet to enter New Jersey.

As it is, Woods is still chasing history on the 7,392-yard, par-70 layout. If he were to win this week, he would notch a second season among the game’s all-time top five (Bobby Jones in 1930, Byron Nelson in 1945, Hogan in 1953 and Woods in 2000).”

“I mean, to have won three majors in a year, that’s pretty cool,” said Woods. “Hopefully, it will happen again this year. … That would be huge.”

And the Lower Course should certainly suit his strengths. Baltusrol is extremely soft and wet, and with little run in the fairway and mammoth length for a par-70 track, long hitters with high ball flights should dominate the leader board. The rough is longer than at past PGAs, a fact that might hamper Woods’ bid somewhat. But in many respects (brutally long, parkland, wet, par-70, slowish greens, New York metro area) the 87th PGA looks and feels a lot like Bethpage, where Woods won his last U.S. Open.

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