The last time Eldrick Woods played at Carnoustie, in the 1996 Scottish Open, the storied links proved to be the real tiger. Winds howled at more than 40 mph and Woods, a 20-year-old amateur, shot 81 in the opening round. As he left the scoring trailer with the bottle of whisky given to each competitor, he shook his head, smiled thinly and held up the bottle. "This may be empty by tomorrow," he said jokingly.
A different Tiger will return to Carnoustie next week for the British Open, and the sobering facts are that this Tiger is coming—after a stopover in Ireland for a week of golf and fishing with David Duval, Lee Janzen, Mark O'Meara and Payne Stewart—with more stripes, sharper claws and a growling stomach. After winning the Motorola Western Open for his third victory in his last four starts, Woods, at 23, will be the man to beat at Carnoustie, which last hosted the Open the year he was born.
Woods seems relaxed, as if he finally has everything—his swing, his putting, his life—under control. He isn't one to let on when things are going his way, but when asked about the state of his game after winning the Western for the second time in three years, he couldn't help breaking into a 100-watt grin. "Overall, my game is coming around real well," he said. "I like it."
What's not to like? In Woods's last five tournaments he has finished tied for seventh (the Byron Nelson Classic); first (the Deutsche Bank in Heidelberg, Germany); first (the Memorial); tied for third (the U.S. Open); and first (the Western). Woods has arrived at that place where Duval just was, the point of harmonic convergence during which golf seems simple and winning comes easily. More tangibly, Woods's three-shot victory over Canadian lefty Mike Weir at Cog Hill, in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, jumped him over Duval and back into the No. 1 spot on die World Ranking, a position Woods had held for 41 straight weeks until dropping to second at the end of March. Winning, though, is more important. "Being Number 1 in '98 and not winning wasn't that great," he says. "I prefer winning."
Earlier this year, while Duval was winning four tournaments before the Masters but struggling to supplant Woods atop the ranking, the critics failed to notice that Woods was also playing well, winning the Buick Invitational and also collecting a tie for second (at the Nissan in L.A.), a third ( Phoenix) and a pair of ties for fifth (the Mercedes and the World Match Play). Woods wasn't in a slump, as he had been in '98, a transitional year during which he won only once but worked on his technique to become a more consistent player.
Woods's path is reminiscent of Duval's once he finally broke through with three wins toward the end of the '97 season. Duval had seven runner-up finishes before those victories, and while some said that he was choking, he maintained that he was building a winning game for the long run. Woods ran the same hurdles last year and earlier this season, and the long-term refinements he has made to his game are starting to pay off.
Woods has always looked to improve. "When I first changed my game drastically, I won three U.S. Juniors in a row, something no one else had ever done," Woods says. "Then I went to work with Butch [Harmon in 1994] and said, T want a new game.' I knew I needed to improve. We tore down my swing, rebuilt it, and I won three U.S. Amateurs. Then I said, 'You know what? I know I can take it to a new level. Tear it down and build it back up.' That's what we did."
The last construction project began, amazingly, not long after Woods's record-setting victory in the 1997 Masters. "I saw some of my swings on videotape and thought, God almighty," Woods says. "I won, but only because I had a great timing week. Anyone can do that. To play consistently from the positions my swing was in was going to be very difficult to do."
To the casual observer, the changes Woods has made in his swing are probably unnoticeable. To him, they are dramatic. His backswing is a bit shorter, just short of parallel. His hands are higher at the top of his backswing, or as Woods says, his hands are farther from his head. There are a few other technical differences, but Woods, essentially, has tightened his swing. This has made him more consistent yet still powerful. (He played the 16 par-5 holes at Cog Hill in 12 under and was 15 under overall.)
Woods has also elevated his short game. Always pretty good around the greens with a sand wedge, he has moved into the great category. He ranks 20 th on Tour in scrambling and 29 th in sand saves. At Cog Hill his sand play was exquisite. He made birdie or saved par from bunkers 10 out of 14 times, a ratio that would have been even higher had he not missed some short putts. Woods has always been a streaky putter, and right now he seems to be on a hot streak, moving from 102nd best putter on Tour two months ago to 23 rd after the Western.