Tiger still stalks the foothills in epic climb to game's summit

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The Independent Online

Slightly less than a year ago, when the cheers had finally faded away, Tiger Woods called a photographer to his home in Florida. In another man it might have been seen as an act of vanity, if not outright narcissism.

For him, though, it was a necessary matter of record, of separating fact and fantasy, of planting his psyche as well as his feet on a piece of sporting ground stunning even by his own and the world's loftiest expectations.

Woods wanted a picture which he would always prize not just for the fact that it would have a very good chance of being always unique but because he could look at it, and perhaps show it to some of his closest friends, less for the extraordinary triumph it depicted but because it confirmed the reality of something which had, he now admits, left him utterly drained. "Sometimes," he says, "you have to take a step back and say, 'I did that, I will always have it however it goes in the future'."

The picture shows the Tiger and the trophies that came in the greatest big-game hunt ever known to golf: the US Open, the Claret Jug, the USPGA title and a silver replica of the Masters trophy. For a moment in time he owned them all, as no one, not Nicklaus or Palmer or Hogan, had ever done before. "It was," said Woods' coach, Butch Harmon, "the coolest sight I've ever seen in my life."

The Tiger was briefly forced into a somewhat less reflective mood when he drove down Magnolia Lane this week to be greeted at the clubhouse by a pack of television crews. One of them brought a heavy camera perilously close to the champion's head. Woods extricated himself sharply, saying: "Jesus, those guys nearly brained me." He was in charge of himself quickly enough, however. He went straight to the practice tee and a series of beautifully sculpted drives confirmed again the likelihood that, at 26, he is still in the foothills of epic achievement.

It is a point that can never be lost on him in the presence of his relentless father, Earl. Says Woods Snr: "He hasn't accomplished it all. He's accomplished some things. He's on the path. Like a mountain climber, when you reach an intermediate peak, is there cause for celebration? Yes. At least you got this far. But the major peak is still coming, and that will be a lot more difficult.

"Yes, there was a let-down after he won the Masters last year and completed his 'Slam.' I believe there is a natural let-down within an individual once they have achieved something that they have long sought, and particularly something of this significance."

Woods is now candid about the toll of that astonishing march along the peaks of golf. He won the US Open and The Open on a tide of brilliant facility, and he had enough emotional resilience to defy the unlikely challenge of Bob May in a play-off for the USPGA. But then he had a winter in which to stew on the possibilities of Augusta. The Masters became everything. The challenge was not a golf tournament but a supreme act of will. He recalls, "On the 18th green, when I didn't have any more shots to play, that's when I realised what I'd done. I had won the tournament, the thing that had been dominating everything since I won the PGA, and I started getting a little emotional.

"You never think of winning a Slam. It's not your main priority. Your main priority is winning major championships. The Slam just gets in the way of that. It's one of those things. It's just a product of trying to win major championships and then ultimately winning those majors. I wore myself out that week in Augusta. I got really sick. I was in bed for three days after the tournament. I had a temperature of 104. I put so much into it, trying to block everything else out, and it finally caught up with me. My body finally broke down."

He had set his own agenda of pressure a few days before going to the first tee. He told his father: "Pop, I just have to nail this one. If I don't, the other three are wasted."

"Let's face it," says Earl Woods, "In the eyes of many people, Press included, he would have been a failure if he didn't win all four. Darn the fact that no one in the history of the world had done it. But also for him it would have been a failure. Therefore he had to sharpen everything, focus as he had never done before."

The cost, at least the one paid throughout the other majors of 2001, is now freely acknowledged in the Woods camp. Harmon says: "The preparation, mentally and technically and physically, was so demanding that in reality what you saw in the rest of the year was a kind of long emotional let-down. There was no question of taking a respite, taking the foot off the pedal. It's just that winning just one major takes so much out of you.

"I know Tiger will accomplish many more great things, but what he did last year, when he brought it all together with his second Masters win, well, it's hard to imagine that he can surpass that."

But, inevitably, that remains the goal. His commitment is no less than to pushing back the horizon of golf.

In the flush of his triumph, Woods said: "Am I amazed? I'm amazed at the fact I was able to play as well as I did when I needed to. I think that's where a lot of the hard work comes in... Just making yourself work that extra bit, because you know you're probably going to need it."

The words of the Tiger call back an old memory. It is of the man whose record of 18 major titles surely represents the ultimate milestone of the game's new ruler. Jack Nicklaus, racked by back pains at the age of 62 and this year missing the tournament he has won six times, was talking deep into the dusk on the practice range of his course at Dublin, Ohio. He was in the middle of his deepest career crisis. He was 39, his father, who had fuelled the braziers on the ice-bound practice grounds of the young Bear's mid-Western youth, had recently died, and he wondered if he would ever win again. He said, "What can you do but come out here and practice and practice and think it all through, and then maybe you have a chance of winning again – that's if you don't go mad." The following year Nicklaus won the US Open and the USPGA. Six years later he won his sixth Masters.

Such were the imperatives of the man who seemed to have conquered golf for all time. But once again they are echoed thunderously here by Tiger Woods. Yesterday he was asked whether he could sustain the kind of intensity which Nicklaus always displayed. "Yes," he said. "Because I enjoy it so much. As Jack did, I expect to do it till my body gives out." Back in Florida, you have to suspect, the picture gallery is far from complete.