It was more of the same on Saturday, yet after another up-and-down 67, Woods looked ahead to the final round with typical detachment. "You can't force winning," he said. "You have to go out and play hard and stay patient. I know, because I've been through this before."
Indeed, between July 1997 and February 1999 Woods won only one Tour event—in what could truly be called a slump—while he made the celebrated overhaul of his swing. Throughout that dry spell he showed remarkable composure, repeating endlessly that he was sacrificing short-term results for long-term excellence. That the gamble paid off so spectacularly has left Woods virtually impervious to both criticism and selfdoubt, and the rush of victories that followed that fallow period goes a long way toward explaining the nonchalance he has shown during his recent winlessness. "There's no scenario he's not prepared for," says Janzen. "He knew 10 years ago all this was going to happen. It's the rest of us who have to figure things out as we go. Tiger's already preprogrammed."
Early on Sunday, Woods looked like the final-round Terminator of old as he birdied 2 and 3 to leapfrog into second place, only one stroke behind Mickelson. However, then he began making the little errors that have dogged him of late. On the 4th hole he fired at a flag tucked into a protected corner of a severely pitched green, and after missing on the short side, he had to scramble to make par. On the par-5 6th Woods was in perfect position off the tee, but he jacked a two-iron 20 yards over the green and had to settle for a momentum-crippling par. After he failed to birdie the 9th hole—another pushover par-5—he made the turn two back, in fourth place. His last gasp was at 18, where he missed a 20-foot eagle putt from the fringe that would have tied him for the lead. Woods wound up fourth, two shots out of a wild Mickelson-Love- Frank Lickliter playoff, which Mickelson won on the third extra hole with a double bogey to Lickliter's triple.
"I'm not too disappointed," Woods said when it was all over. "The name of the game is scoring, and I shot three straight 67s, even when I wasn't playing my best. I've gotten better every week. My iron play is getting sharper, my putting's coming around—I rolled it well the last three days." Then, with a touch of mischief, he added, "Hopefully I'll keep getting better until the first week of April."
This attitude may be the key to understanding Woods's game. He's smart enough to know that he's not going to get all the good bounces this season, as he did in 2000. Instead of chasing his tail in a doomed effort to replicate last year's victory total, he's emphasizing one event, the Masters, his favorite tournament. Augusta means even more to him this time, because a victory would give him the disputed carryover Grand Slam. Says his father, Earl, "Is Tiger bored of winning the Buick Invitationals of the world? Heck no. He's too much of a competitor. But frankly, Augusta is the goal for the early part of this season. Every other tournament is an interim goal."
Until the Masters, expect Woods to continue to gut out strong finishes, even as he gropes to find his form. His fellow competitors will brace themselves accordingly. "If this is a slump, I hate to think what's going to happen when he breaks out of it," says Janzen. "Put it this way: Nobody thinks Tiger's run is over. By any means."