Arrival of the absolute master

When Tiger Woods first stormed Augusta, a new era was hailed. Only the player knew that he wasn't ready. After rebuilding the swing that shook the world, he is now
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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods' first US Masters title three years ago was won in extraordinary circumstances. A professional golfer for six months, Woods produced the lowest score ever at Augusta National and his winning margin of 12 strokes was the greatest of the century. Being 21 and with a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, it was not just Woods' golf that made the headlines. It became one of those classic "I was there" occasions, when golf started to lose its stuffy, middle-aged, white image.

But when it comes to Woods' own game, there was a far more solitary moment when everything clicked. The significant instant when he knew that everything he had dreamed of could come true. Away from the glories of winning championships, the most dedicated of talented sports people can be found putting in the hard graft. That is what Woods was doing one evening last May on the driving range at his home club of Isleworth in Orlando, Florida.

The surroundings could not be further removed from the pressure of the final hole of a major championship. But when Woods pulled an eight iron out of his bag and swung it exactly - and here exactly means with a precision only a perfectionist would recognise - as he wished to do, it was the vindication of a self-imposed quest that boggles the mind even now.

For, incredibly, having won the Masters by 12 strokes, Woods had decided that he needed to change his swing. He needed a better one. But after hitting that eight-iron, Woods instantly grabbed his mobile phone and spoke to his coach, Butch Harmon. "In essence, what Tiger was saying was, 'I don't need to think about it on every swing'," Harmon recalled. "All the work we had done started to feel natural at that point. The other thing he said to me that day was, 'I've got my cockiness back'.

"Inwardly, throughout the period we were working on his game, Tiger did not have the feeling he was better than everybody. He has it now, but he had lost that little edge." When Harmon put down his phone, he punched the air. "It was like, 'Yeah, look out now'," he said.

Harmon was right. Over the past year, Woods has won 13 times from the Deutsche Bank Open last May to the Bay Hill Invitational last month. He won a second major at the US PGA Championship and had a streak of six successive US Tour victories, the best for more than 50 years. This week he goes back to Augusta, where the common assumption is that he will add asecond Masters to his collection.

Woods knows better than anyone that nothing can be taken for granted in golf. He may be the man to beat - he has three second places as well as three wins in seven starts this season - but he dismisses suggestions that others are playing only for second place. He knows, every week, someone will be at their best and will be difficult to beat. At the Players' Championship it was Hal Sutton. This may not be the case this week. Not only has the winner of the Players, traditionally played two weeks before the Masters, never gone on to don a green jacket in the same year, but Sutton has not made a cut at Augusta since 1985.

Despite more tinkerings to the National course - a couple of redesigned greens and a few trees put in here and taken out there - it remains vulnerable to the kind of power game Woods plays. On peak form, Woods devastated the course in 1997, but he has failed to contend in the last two years, finishing eighth and 18th. It was the consistency that comes from a technically correct swing that he was seeking when he started retuning a month after his first Masters win.

"Anybody can have a great week out here," he said, "but with my old swing I was not going to have any consistency. I was going to play well in stretches and then you wouldn't see me again. I wanted to be there every week."

In his first tournament after winning at Augusta, Woods won the Byron Nelson Classic. A week later, he missed several greens down the stretch to lose the Colonial title. Woods and Harmon had seen enough. "That's when I said, 'This isn't right'," Harmon said. "It was obvious he was having trouble controlling his distance and trajectory under pressure."

What Woods wanted to achieve, and appears to have done better than anyone else in the history of the game, is to marry his power with pin-point accuracy. As one noted golf instructor said: "Somebody with power needs a better swing to be accurate than someone who is less powerful." The inspiration for the changes was a poster given to Woods by Harmon of Ben Hogan at the impact position.

Technically, Woods weakened his grip and got the club face squarer at the top of the backswing. Just as importantly, however, he started an extreme exercise programme, not just to be able to fly around the world, step off a plane and go and play, but to have the sheer strength to generate the clubhead speed he does and yet to remain in control.

"He is now able to take the pace of the swing he practises to the course in a tournament round," Harmon said. "You don't see those hard, out-of-control swings any more. It is maturity, but it is also a matter of hard work because most golfers lapse back into their old ways under pressure."

It is Woods' power, now that it has been harnessed in a way John Daly has never managed for long, that makes other pros envious. "His length is a huge advantage," said Darren Clarke, who beat Woods to win the World Matchplay in San Diego in February. "He has the ability to overpower courses and make eagles at par fives because he is incredibly straight to go along with his length. It is very easy to be sucked into thinking, 'Oh, Tiger's only got an eight-iron where I'll be hitting a four-iron'."

Not all Masters champions possess power games. Finesse around those devilish greens is more of a common denominator. Woods has improved his bunker play, but what marks him out is the way he holes putts - and chips - when it matters. "It is all about holing the right putts. That's what Tiger does," Colin Montgomerie said. At Augusta in 1997, Woods did not three-putt once. But the following year, when he won only once on the US Tour, he ranked 147th in putting. Mired in technique, his triumvirate of putting advisers - Harmon, Tiger's father Earl and Mark O'Meara - suggested reverting to the uncluttered mentality of his amateur days.

The result was eight wins on the US Tour last year, the first time that had been done since Johnny Miller in 1974. According to his manager, Mark Steinberg of IMG, it was a "very soft 'I told you so'," after his so-called "slump" of 1998. "Tiger has learned how to win," Harmon said. "He saw that Nicklaus, when he had the lead going into Sunday, would win with a 71 or 72. He didn't have to drop it on every pin and shoot 65. He let other people make mistakes. Tiger does that now."

Woods used to have a list of all Jack Nicklaus' milestones pinned to his bedroom wall. With 24 wins in three-and-a-half years, he is keeping up nicely. Of course, the $15 million he has won is thanks to inflation and the commercial sector's love affair with sport in general, golf in particular and Woods especially. Nicklaus' greatest record of 18 major championships appears safe for a while, as does Byron Nelson's 11 consecutive US Tour wins in 1945.

Woods got half way there with his sixth successive win at the AT&T Pro-am at Pebble Beach in February (in typically dramatic circumstances after being seven behind with seven to play). "A whole new generation of golf fans have learned about me because of what Tiger did. I have received more attention now than in 1945," said the 88-year-old Nelson, who will be the ceremonial starter on Thursday morning with Sam Snead. "One thing you have to say about Tiger is that he's still improving. There are a lot of young players who might win some tournaments, make some money and slow down. Not him. He's got a great body and a great mind for golf and he's got the desire to keep getting better."

"For players who have been out a while," Woods said, "it's very easy to get in a rut of just playing golf and forgetting what you came out here to do. The guys who are secure by virtue of career wins or being in the top 50 on the money list, they lose sight of their goals. They're not focused on winning championships."

If anyone has an excuse for not being fully focused it should be Woods. This year he will earn in the region of $65m, most of it from his corporate sponsors, who include Nike, American Express, Rolex and General Motors. Then, of course, he is busy being the "second Michael Jordan". The basketball star recognises the signs of a star performer. "He creates negative thoughts in his opponents' minds," Jordan said. "Intimidation can be so successful. Tiger has it."

But Jordan, who thrived in a team game rather than an individual sport, also appreciates that Woods has had to put up with much that he did not, for example being a figurehead for minorities in a sport considered a white bastion. "I never had to deal with that," Jordan said. "Tiger has also got involved in the business aspect of sport way before I did. I just played the games and never thought about what impact I might have."

At first, it was not something Woods wanted to contemplate either. Towards the end of 1998, when Woods was grumbling about life in a goldfish bowl, Harmon told him to either "retire and count your money or deal with your life and have fun. Now he is comfortable being Tiger Woods." Said Earl Woods: "He is more at peace because he has accepted his role as a superstar. What I really like is that he really thinks and acts globally. He is not just a person in the United States. He is a person of the world."

"I like where my life is right now," Tiger said. He started dating his girlfriend, Joanna Jagoda, in 1998 and guards her privacy jealously. Later that year he got rid of his brash agent, Hughes Norton, and replaced him with Steinberg, a younger and more laid-back character. They worked on his image. "It seemed that Tiger wasn't very accessible," said Steinberg. "He was an island. I wanted people to get to know him as a person as well as a superhuman golfer."

Among the television ads that followed, Tiger was shown bouncing a ball on the face of a sand wedge. His record, according to Golf Digest, is 1,000 repetitions. The magazine also reported Woods as holing 200 consecutive six-foot putts, hitting a nine-iron 240 yards (downhill, downwind from a flying lie), bench pressing more than one and a half times his body weight, experiencing zero gravity in an F16 Thunderbird and that he makes his bed every morning, even when he is staying in a hotel.

On course, Woods can still be seen tossing the odd club, but it tends to be on an early hole on Thursday rather than down the stretch on Sunday. Smiling, though, is not a regular occurrence. "Some lady asked me why and I said, 'Ma'am, I'm nervous. I don't know if you can smile when you are nervous but I don't have that skill'."

The mythical notion that Woods can win the grand slam is intriguing because all this year's venues are set up nicely for him. The US Open is at Pebble Beach, where he won in February, the Open is at St Andrews, a long-hitters' dream, while the US PGA is at Valhalla. Woods will not admit it is not possible, but don't bet against him.

What Woods will say is this: "I know what I want to accomplish and I know how to get there. The ultimate goal is to be the best. Whether that's the best ever, who knows? I hope so."