The road less traveled for Tiger
Star used to be known as best closer in golf; not now
ON THE FRINGE
By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press
Updated: 4:42 p.m. ET May 18, 2004
IRVING, Texas - A spectator walking down the right side of the eighth hole at the Byron Nelson Championship turned when he heard the “thwack” of a tee shot in the distance. What happened next made it perfectly clear who had hit the drive.
Here’s the funny part: There is no gallery on the left side of No. 8 on the TPC at Las Colinas, but Tiger Woods still had the decency to call out, “Fore!”
Then again, that probably has become second nature to him by now.
Or maybe it keeps him from saying something else.
One thing is certain — Woods is having major problems off the tee. That kept him from making a run Sunday in the Byron Nelson, and the previous Sunday at the Wachovia Championship, and earlier this year at Torrey Pines. And unless he gets his tee shots straightened out, it could keep him from having a fighting chance at Shinnecock Hills.
The upside: Woods still managed to finish only one shot out of the playoff the last two weeks, and he was two shots away from making the playoff after a similar week at Torrey Pines.
Not too long ago, Woods had the reputation as being the best closer in golf. He won 18 straight times over five years when he had at least a share of the 36-hole lead. He remains 30-2 on the PGA Tour going into the final round.
Trouble is, Woods hasn’t been able to get to the final round in a position where everyone has to catch him. The last two tournaments, he has squandered the lead with a Saturday swoon and never could get his name atop the leaderboard at any point Sunday to at least give the final groups something to think about.
His reputation lately is that he can’t find a fairway.
If losing the lead to Sergio Garcia wasn’t enough to get under his skin, consider what the 24-year-old Spaniard said after watching Woods make a 30-foot birdie on the 17th to get within one shot of the lead Sunday at Las Colinas.
“I knew that he still had to play 18,” Garcia said. “And yeah, if you drive it well on 18, you can make a birdie. But unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been driving it all that great.”
Woods put a positive spin on his errant tee shots — 41 percent of the fairways at the Byron Nelson, only three fairways hit in the final round, and 13 consecutive drives on the weekend that failed to find the short grass.
“It was frustrating I wasn’t able to hit fairways,” he said. “But on top of that, I hit good shots that were landing in the fairway and were running into the rough. I hit four shots that did that.”
Las Colinas is not Kapalua, where the fairways are 90 yards wide.
It’s no Shinnecock, either.
Statistics in golf can be misleading, which is why most of the top players concern themselves only with scoring average and number of victories.
Woods will never be mistaken for Fred Funk, who aims at lawnmower stripes in the fairway.
He is 159th in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour, hitting 56 percent of the fairways, his lowest ranking ever. In 2001, when Woods won The Players Championship and completed the “Tiger Slam” with his fourth straight major at the Masters, he ranked 145th. His highest ranking in driving accuracy was 49th in 1999.
Woods said an aggressive player is doing well when he hits about 60 percent of his fairways. He also said the best way to measure any player is to watch him.
Some of his misses, indeed, are stopping only a few feet off the fairway in thick grass. Others are off the map, like the drive he hit on No. 18 in the final round that left him no shot at the green.
John Cook played a practice round with him Tuesday and said every shot was pure. Cook played with him the first two rounds at the Nelson, and Woods only hit half of his fairways.
Woods keeps talking about learning to trust his swing. He also keeps saying he is close, which has been hard to believe this year. Throw out his victory in the Match Play Championship, and the closest Woods has been to the lead going into the final round was three shots at the Byron Nelson.
“Everything has been positive,” Woods said Tuesday. “Everything is going the direction I like to see it, and the results are starting to come together.
“It is close. I show signs of it, and then if I would just get a little bit more consistent with some shots, I would have been all right.”
There is tremendous focus on his swing these days. Dallas-based Hank Haney, the longtime coach for Mark O’Meara, watched Woods from behind the ropes and worked with him on the practice range all week.
There remains talk about his Nike driver, although that, too, is overblown. Woods can’t seem to hit the fairway no matter what club is in his hands.
The proof ultimately will be the results, which are not that far off.