It's Tiger Time After a year of "close" encounters, Woods is ready for Troon

July 11, 2004

Last week at the Cialis Western Open, Tiger Woods finally backed
up his assertion that better days are near, making nine birdies
during a third-round 65 as the Tiger-of-old charged into
contention. He followed up with 16 steady pars during Sunday's
blustery finish to tie for seventh, five shots behind winner
Stephen Ames. So consider this an early warning for next week's
British Open at Royal Troon: Woods is "close." Believe it.

Why? For starters there's the equipment issue. Woods has finally
faced reality and switched to a big-headed, graphite-shafted Nike
driver instead of the older, shorter, steel-shafted model he had
been using. Since 1998 just about every PGA Tour player has
picked up 20 to 30 yards off the tee thanks to better balls,
shafts and drivers, while Woods stubbornly stuck to his old
sticks and gained only three yards, effectively giving up what
used to be a two-club edge in length. One of only two players to
average in the 290s off the tee in '98, Woods was still in the
290s last year--along with more than 60 others. He ranked 160th
in fairways hit this year before going to a blue-shafted driver
in last week's Wednesday pro-am. For the week he hit 60.7% of the
fairways (48th in the field), including 11 of 14 in Sunday's
winds, and was second in driving distance at 313.9.

"I remember playing practice rounds with him in 2000, and he'd
hit these drives and you'd say, 'Wow, that is so far and so
straight,'" says Davis Love III, who lost to Woods in the final
of the Accenture Match Play Championship in February, Woods's
only win this year. "You never say that anymore. It was
frightening playing with him then. In the last year and a half or
so I'm driving it right with him."

There's also the Butch Harmon issue, now resolved, sort of.
During the U.S. Open, Woods was stung when Harmon said that he
was in denial if he believed there wasn't something wrong with
his swing. So last week Woods called Harmon to clear the air.
While they won't be reuniting as teacher and student, at least
Woods won't have to field questions on the topic. In addition
Woods admitted that his caddie, Steve Williams, shouldn't have
kicked a photographer's camera during the U.S. Open, and Williams
himself gave a rare interview, telling The New York Times that he
regretted his actions. Scratch another distraction off the list.

More important, Woods showed his old resiliency. After bottoming
out on Friday, when he hit his irons "like a dog," he said, and
appeared so flustered that he played out of turn at one point, he
birdied the first three holes on Saturday. "I'm very happy with
it," Woods said about his game. The scary part? The
I-know-something-you-don't-know grin he couldn't hold back as he
said it. Tiger is close, and so is the British Open. --Gary Van
Sickle

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (WOODS) MAJOR CHANGE At the Western, Woods unveiled an oversized graphite driver. COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (FURYK) COLOR PHOTO: AL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM (PARNEVIK) COLOR PHOTO: STEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COM (CREAMER) COLOR PHOTO: STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES (WITTENBERG)

Trust Me

The outcry over Michelle Wie's Women's Open exemption was stupid
and shortsighted, as the record crowds and Wie's 13th-place
finish more than justified her presence.

Up & Down

[Up]

Jim Furyk
His tie for seventh at the Western ends any talk that he would
be a Ryder Cup liability.

Paul Azinger, Dottie Pepper
Both had solid TV debuts, especially Pepper, who went
barb-for-barb with Johnny Miller.

Paula Creamer
The talented 17-year-old doesn't get Michelle Wie's ink but was
her equal on the course.

[Down]

Jesper Parnevik
Forced out of the Scottish Open with a bum right shoulder, his
Ryder Cup status is in doubt.

Corey Pavin, Kelly Tilghman
Underwhelming in their network showcases. We've heard enough of
both.

Casey Wittenberg
The 19-year-old impressed at the Masters and Open, then went pro
and M.C.'d at the Western.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)