Marriage may help Tiger return to the top of rankings

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The Independent Online

Tiger has been snorkelling in the Caribbean - and, if rumours proved correct, he was due to marry his beautiful Swedish fiancée, Elin Nordegren there yesterday.

Back in May 1999, the last time Tiger Woods slipped to No 3 in the world rankings, he won promptly the next tournament in Germany, the launching pad for one of the most remarkable winning streaks the game has seen. This week, having been overtaken now by Ernie Els as well as the new No 1, Vijay Singh, Tiger has been snorkelling in the Caribbean - and, if rumours proved correct, he was due to marry his beautiful Swedish fiancée, Elin Nordegren there yesterday.

The pair met when Nordegren, 24, was working as a nanny for Jesper Parnevik at the 2001 Open. Tiger proposed last December at a game reserve in South Africa, where he was playing in the Presidents Cup.

Earl Woods once suggested the only things that could derail Tiger's career would be injury or a bad marriage. No one would wish the second on anyone but the comment was interpreted in some quarters that a binding relationship was incompatible with sporting supremacy, a notion quashed by the careers of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Singh and Els, among others. Samantha Els, playfully sitting on her father's lap while he talked about winning the AmEx World Championship on Sunday, provided joyful proof.

Injury is another matter and Woods had to have surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee at the end of 2002. Given the extraordinary torque created by his upper body, the reduced stability in his legs for more than a year may have led to flaws creeping into his swing.

Then, last week at Mount Juliet, he played through intense back pain. An opening 68 was scored with grim determination, though at least the tendency to hit ever harder at the ball, so noticeable earlier in the year, was made impossible.

Woods is now without a strokeplay title to his name for the first time since he won his fifth event as a professional. He still holds the Accenture Matchplay title, another of the World Championship events, but the format varies the regular diet. When Tiger won the tournament in 2003, it was agreed he would have strolled to victory if it had been a strokeplay week. This year the same claim was not made. Woods remains fourth on the US money list with only Singh, Phil Mickelson and Els above him. In a full season he has never finished below that position. For the first time since 1998 he will not be voted the Player of the Year in the US, Singh's eight titles (and counting) having seen to that.

Tiger's 13 top-10 finishes are as good as any of his seasons, except for 2000 and 2001, but the statistics tell a stark tale. In his glory year of 2000, he hit 71.2 per cent of the fairways and led the greens in regulation at 75.2 per cent. This season he is 176th in fairways hit with a percentage of 57.3, which has allowed him to hit the green only 66.5 per cent of the time. His putting has saved him time and again.

Having sacked his coach, Butch Harmon, in 2002, Woods, although he has not officially confirmed it, is working with Mark O'Meara's teacher, Hank Haney. At only 28, Tiger has been seeking to make long-term changes, as he did after winning the Masters in 1997 and before his record-breaking run as world No 1 started in 1999.

Why, though? "I felt I could get better," he said. "If you remember, I junked my golf swing back in 1997, too. I won the Masters by 12 and you guys all thought I was crazy for doing that. I remember all those articles. I turned that around, didn't I?This year I have been in contention to win tournaments and I just haven't won."

But that is precisely why Woods will have to regain his best simply to keep up with the likes of Singh and Els. But Padraig Harrington believes that to be inevitable.

"He may not be the best golfer in the world at this very moment but he is still the most talented," Harrington said. "Tiger will be back on top of his throne eventually. I think it is just a matter of time. He was performing at the highest level possible, I think the highest anybody has got to, in 2000. At that level, sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward again and obviously a bit of a shine has gone off Tiger's game while he's trying to improve.

"That doesn't mean he won't come out a better player in another year's time. You don't need to worry about Tiger."