- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2007

TULSA, Okla. — History says Tiger Woods better prepare himself to finish 0-for-‘07.

Golf’s colossus comes to the sweatfest otherwise known as the 89th PGA Championship with one last chance to reverse a frustrating season of near-misses in the majors. But perhaps no layout among the game’s several dozen Slam staples suits Woods worse than Southern Hills.

It’s difficult to label a four-win season that includes two major silvers disappointing. But if Woods leaves Tulsa without the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday night, that’s the way he will look back on 2007.

By anyone else’s standards, Woods has enjoyed a superb season. He leads the PGA Tour in virtually every meaningful category (wins, scoring average, earnings, FedEx Cup points). But because he averaged 1.2 major victories a season over the first decade of a career driven by one simple, if outrageous, goal — eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Slam victories — anything other than major hardware lacks luster.

“It’s been pretty good but not great,” Woods said yesterday when asked to assess his season. “I haven’t won a major. I’ve come close, but I haven’t gotten it done. You could win one time all season, and if it’s a major, you’ve had a great year. I just think the major championships are valued that highly.”

Woods played himself into perfect back-nine position at both the Masters and U.S. Open only to fizzle down the stretch in both situations, settling for seconds to a pair of major first-timers (Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera). There were no real defining hiccups for Woods at Augusta National or Oakmont. But there weren’t any heroics either, a surprise given Woods‘ previously unparalleled record as the most merciless closer in golf history.

“In majors, you expect him to be there,” said Johnson, the unlikely owner of a green jacket. “And I don’t know why he didn’t come through [in the season’s first two majors]. It’s good to know he’s human, I guess.”

Woods targets a maddening disconnect between his best ball-striking and purest putting rounds as the culprit.

“If I’ve hit it well, I haven’t putted well. And if I’ve hit it poorly, I’ve made everything,” the 31-year-old said. “It’s just like can I get the two together somehow? Welcome to golf, eh?”

Last week, Woods did put it all together at the Bridgestone Invitational. Punishing the field and facing particular mouthy South African Rory Sabbatini, Woods won by eight strokes thanks to a clinical Sunday 65. After a pair of relatively pedestrian performances at his AT&T; National (tied for sixth) and the British Open (tied for 12th), Woods looked his old peerless self in Akron, leading the field in driving distance (335.0 yards) and greens in regulation (52 of 72).

But it’s difficult to judge Tiger’s PGA Championship preparedness based on his performance at the Bridgestone. After all, Woods probably pays property taxes on Firestone, a layout on which he has collected six victories in eight starts.

But Firestone is the exception for Woods when it comes to par-70 courses, not the rule. And that is one of the primary reasons to question his status as this week’s favorite at 7,131-yard, par-70 Southern Hills.

This week marks Woods‘ 20th start on a par-70 major track, yet only one of his 12 major titles has come on such a layout. That was at soggy, must-bomb Bethpage Black in the 2002 U.S. Open. Take away Firestone and just four of his remaining 52 PGA Tour titles have come on par-70 tracks.

Neither Firestone nor Bethpage look anything like Southern Hills, the steamy, tree-strangled, dogleg-happy layout responsible for snapping his stranglehold on the majors at the 2001 U.S. Open (tied for 12th). Only four of Southern Hills’ par-4s and par-5s can be described as relatively straight (Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 16). The other 10 multiple-shotters are doglegs, some severe, featuring pinched fairways that place a much higher premium off the tee on accuracy than distance (never Woods” forte). Woods will have the option of hitting driver only five times (Nos. 1, 2, 5, 13 and 16), and even his 3-wood will be too much club off of most tees. Translation: Southern Hills’ doglegs nullify the length advantage Woods typically enjoys over the majority of the field.

Southern Hills is old school in its design, perhaps most closely resembling Colonial Country Club and Westchester Country Club among the courses regularly visited by the Tour. How many times has Woods played at Colonial and Westchester? A total of five times in his 11-year career and only once over the last five seasons (2003 Buick Classic). He has never won on those two tracks and recorded just one top-10 finish (tied for fourth at 1997 Colonial).

Confronted with this argument, Woods admitted the relative weakness of his record on shortish, twisty layouts.

“I understand that. … I understand why people would say it doesn’t suit me like, say, St. Andrews or Torrey Pines,” Woods said, quickly moving away from any potentially negative thoughts. “It certainly does have some movement to it. But you know, we’re all basically playing from the same spots anyways. … I like this golf course.”

It doesn’t like him much, as evidenced by his 71.38 scoring average on Southern Hills in the 1996 Tour Championship (tied for 21st) and 2001 U.S. Open. That doesn’t mean Woods can’t win in spite of Southern Hills; nobody who saw him take apart ill-suited Hoylake with his long irons at last year’s British Open will dismiss him solely on such grounds again.

But if ever a course was Tiger-proofed, it’s Southern Hills.

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