Golf: Tiger adapts naturally to new mortality

The boy wonder is winning less now he is a man, but he is playing even better. Andy Farrell reports
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The Independent Online
TIGER WOODS knows what a slump is. While, contrary to some suggestions, the world No 1 is not in one, his clothing line is. Nike, already suffering from Brazil's World Cup final defeat, have so far overclubbed on their projections for the Tiger Woods Collection.

Woods, a 22-year-old with enough on his hands with what happens inside the ropes, professes not to know the business aspects of the slump in sales. But he is keenly aware that his performances have a direct correlation.

"I see a lot of the kids wearing my logoed stuff," Woods said. "But from a player's perspective, I think people just like to be associated with things that are winning, maybe, not just being consistent.

"For something to really sell, you have to win a lot. This game is not like a basketball game or football game or baseball game where it's cut and dried every day, you win or lose. Here, you have to wait four days and then you win or lose. If people see that you're on a winning streak, they go out and buy your stuff. But in this game it's a little difficult to win."

In the past 12 months, Woods has confirmed that theory with only two victories. How different it was almost exactly two years ago when Woods won his third US Amateur title and turned professional with $43m in his pocket. At his next tournament, Curtis Strange, the former US Open champion who now works for the ABC network in America, interviewed Woods.

It soon became apparent that Woods was interested only in winning. "But, on tour, second or third is not too bad," Strange said. Woods concurred but restated his original premise: he was only interested in winning. Strange laughed. "You'll learn," he said. For a while the joke seemed to be on his fellow professionals, the ones conditioned to life, and survival, on tour. Woods won seven times in his first nine month as a pro, including the 1997 Masters in stupendous fashion. Now Strange looks prophetic.

No longer does Woods state prior to every tournament that he is there to win. And nor does he. Instead, he talks about having improved as a player and how much more consistent he is. And so he is. Already he has more top-10 finishes this season than in the whole of last and he was in the top-10 of three of the four majors. He finished second to Mark O'Meara in a table of lowest aggregates from the four majors.

"It's a more mature Tiger than you saw last year. I've got more shots. I understand how to hit shots when I'm not really feeling well over the ball, how to get the ball out there and keep it in play. Last year I was a little guilty of being too rambunctious a little bit and not really being as patient as I need to be. And this year I've been extremely patient.

"It has been a big learning curve, no doubt about it. The biggest thing that I've learned is just how to play the game out here at this level, how to play on all different courses and conditions.

"I've become more of a well-rounded player and I've worked on some of my weaknesses. And I feel very pleased with the progress I've made in the last 14 months not only as a player but as a person."

Two things have counted against Woods in the majors. The other players have raised their games and the courses have been tightened even more than usual. Accuracy over power has been the key.

"Am I impressed in the way I played in the majors this year? Well, yeah, I am. I know how difficult it is to win a major. I've had some major experience. It is just one of those things where it's very difficult to have your game peak at the right time.

"At Augusta, I was fortunate enough to play 63 straight holes where my game was pretty much right on. And it was a lot of fun, trust me.

"But has it taught me how difficult it is to win? It's very difficult. I'm very pleased at the way I've played in the majors this year. Unfortunately, I haven't won one. That's the ultimate goal, but you can't beat yourself up over that. I've been right there and that's all you can ask for, just be consistent and give yourself a chance.

"It's a matter of time before the breaks start falling your way. You hole out a chip or make a long putt or something like that and squeeze out a victory. And that's what you need."

All this makes perfect sense and will bring Woods more majors in the future. But it is the talk of just another highly talented player and not the phenomenon we thought had arrived last year.