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Back to the Future
ALAN SHIPNUCK
January 31, 2005
With his new swing finally under control, Tiger Woods ended an 11-month drought and hinted that another stretch of dominance has only just begun
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January 31, 2005

Back To The Future

With his new swing finally under control, Tiger Woods ended an 11-month drought and hinted that another stretch of dominance has only just begun

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NICKLAUS

AGE

WOODS

 

21

Masters

U.S. Open

22

 

Masters

23

PGA

PGA

   
 

24

U.S. Open

   

British Open

   

PGA

Masters

25

Masters

Masters

26

Masters

British Open

 

U.S. Open

U.S. Open

27

 

British Open

30

 

PGA

31

 

Masters

32

 

U.S. Open

   

PGA

33

 

Masters

35

 

PGA

 

British Open

38

 

U.S. Open

40

 

PGA

   

Masters

46

 

If Tiger Woods's victory over Tom Lehman at the Buick Invitational had a certain familiarity, that's because we've seen it before. Woods went head-to-head with Lehman at the 1997 Mercedes Championships, the opening tournament of Woods's first full season on Tour. Back then he disposed of Lehman in sudden death with a six-iron to within inches of the flag, an instantly famous shot that launched a juggernaut. Now Woods has gone back to the future to trump Lehman again and end an 11-month PGA Tour winless funk that coincided with the second swing overhaul of his career. The victory brings into focus the most intriguing question of what is already shaping up as a thrilling year for golf: Is Woods back and even better than before?

Winning ugly on one of the Tour's toughest tracks provides some compelling evidence. Last year Woods had nine top five finishes but only one win, hitting so many foul balls that it took heroic scrambling simply to stay in contention. Last week at Torrey Pines Golf Course, in La Jolla, Calif., Woods was weakened by the aftereffects of the flu and disrupted by a series of fog delays, but the three-stroke victory was proof of how far his swing has come. "My mechanics are sound enough now that I could place my misses," Woods said on Sunday after a closing four-under-par 68 capped his 16-under 272. "I was able to miss the ball in the proper spots again and give myself the best chance to get up and down or to make birdies."

Woods's 41st Tour victory might signal the beginning of a triumphant third act in an already legendary career. To those who couldn't fathom why he would change his swing after all his success, remember that the last time he messed with his action was after a record 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters. Woods is an obsessive-compulsive in a never-ending quest for improvement. Even during his 31/2-year run of the most dominant golf ever played, from 1999 to 2002, he was nettled that he had to battle a lifelong flaw of uncoiling his lower body ahead of his upper body on the downswing, which resulted in the club's becoming "stuck" behind him. After Woods's epic 2000 season, during which he won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight, he and his swing instructor, Butch Harmon, had concentrated largely on the maintenance of synchronizing Woods's hips and arms. Student and teacher split in late 2002 in part because Woods wanted to find a lasting fix. When he failed to win a major in 2003 he became all the more determined to, as he puts it, "own" his swing.

In March 2004 Woods began working with Hank Haney, the longtime coach of Mark O'Meara, Woods's friend and mentor. Haney's focus has been on building a more connected swing during which Woods would maintain the same plane on the backswing and downswing. As he worked to groove this new swing throughout 2004, Woods's frequent pronouncements that "I'm close" led to much eye-rolling, but by the end of last season he really was. At the Tour Championship in early November he shot 64 and 65 on Friday and Saturday, his best two-day total since 2000, although he took a step backward with a final-round 72 to cough up the lead.

A week later Woods was hitting balls at his home course, Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., when he had the eureka moment--his new swing had finally clicked. (He had a similar epiphany on the range at the 1998 Byron Nelson Classic, when he made a famous phone call to Harmon to say, "I got it.") The following week Woods won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan. Yes, it was against a weak field on a ho-hum course, but none of that mattered to Woods. After a flawless final-round 67 he said, "I hit every shot I wanted to hit." Two weeks later he won the unofficial Target World Challenge, dusting a small but strong field that included Vijay Singh.

"It seemed like he was always leading," said Stewart Cink, who played in the Dunlop Phoenix and the World Challenge. "It was like back to 2000 again."

The question is whether Woods at his best can still dominate, or have the other top players closed the gap? Singh has taken away the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking with two years of spectacular smashmouth golf, and after winning two weeks ago at the Sony Open, he seems only hungrier and more confident. Even so, Harmon recently opined that Ernie Els is the best player in the world, pointing out that he's a more complete package than Singh. (Woods surely took note that he didn't even rate a mention from his former guru, the latest jab in what has become a distant and occasionally contentious relationship.) Woods's former excellence had a tremendous motivating effect on his competitors, and they have become emboldened by outperforming Woods for the better part of a year. Says Els, "Tiger, he wants to get better, and it's taken a year for him to feel as if he's back to where he wants to be. But in the time that he's been working, the guys have definitely stepped it up. Let's see what happens now. Guys are a lot more sure of themselves and more confident than in 2000, when we all got beat. It's definitely a different ball game."

Then again, what has always separated Woods from the likes of Els and Singh (and Retief Goosen and Phil Mickelson) is his short game and his mental toughness, both of which are unmatched and were on full display at the Buick. A nasty flu bug had kept Woods in bed for most of the previous week and caused him to lose seven pounds. Though he described himself as "emaciated," Woods began the second round by birdieing four of his first five holes, but he was stopped by a momentum-killing fog delay of 3 1/2 hours. He made the most of the downtime. "I didn't quite feel my best, so I went back to the hotel room and crashed," he said.

After the nap Woods continued his energetic play, including birdies at the 16th and 17th holes, but the round was suspended due to darkness before he could get to the par-5 18th. Woods returned for a 7:30 restart the next morning, waited out a 2 1/2-hour fog delay and then made a two-putt birdie on 18 to put the finishing touch on a 63, his lowest score since July 2003. He had to kill six more hours before he hit another shot. When Woods's third round finally began, at 4 p.m., he birdied the first two holes, giving him a remarkable run of five straight birds spread across 24 hours. He squeezed in three more holes before the round was called because of darkness. At 14 under, he was tied for the lead with Lehman, the 2006 Ryder Cup captain who is suddenly resurgent at 45 and was chasing his first victory since 2000.

A 31-hole Sunday turned into match play after Luke Donald, who had led for most of the day, double-bogeyed the 14th and Charles Howell had a near-perfect approach at the 72nd hole pop out of the cup and into the water, turning a potential tournament-winning eagle into a bogey that dropped him out of contention. With those two out of the way, Woods wore down Lehman with a series of bloodless shots. On the 15th hole Tiger buried a crucial 15-footer to save par and preserve a tie for the lead. Two holes later he played a gorgeous seven-iron from 170 yards to within eight feet of the cup. Pressing to answer, Lehman dumped his approach into a greenside bunker. Woods missed his putt but had his first lead of the day when Lehman couldn't save par. At 18 Woods busted a killer drive and ultimately left himself a 20-footer for birdie to clinch the victory.

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