Woods brings new and improved game to Augusta

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The Independent Online

Youngest Masters champion ever. Lowest 72-hole score since Augusta National in Georgia first opened its gates in 1934. Largest margin of victory in a major championship since Young Tom Morris in the 1870 British Open.

And then, Tiger Woods started over.

The genius of Woods is that he is not satisfied with what he has done if it won't carry him to what he hopes to accomplish. The records he set during that historic romp through Augusta in 1997 were not the ones that mattered.

Jack Nicklaus won six green jackets. Woods wants at least that many. Nicklaus won 18 professional majors. Woods has his sights set on 19 and beyond.

"He judges everything against Jack Nicklaus. That's his barometer," said Butch Harmon, Woods' swing coach the past seven years.

And so, not long after he won the Masters at age 21, Woods decided to rebuild his swing and remake his game. He added precision to his power. His swing is less steep, allowing him to control his distance with irons.

His short game never has been better. Just two weeks ago in the Bay Hill Invitational, Woods missed 13 greens on the weekend and got up-and-down 12 times.

One thing that has never changed is his desire to set new standards.

"He's got phenomenal focus," Nicklaus said. "If he can keep that going for a long period of time, he'll break all of my records - and everyone else's."

The pursuit of those records returns this week at Augusta National, where Woods is the favorite to win the 64th Masters.

The course is set up perfectly for Woods. It requires length off the tee, approach shots into specific areas of the lightning-quick, undulating greens, an imaginative short game and a soft, fearless touch with the putter.

Woods has all that and more. He started thinking about the Masters as early as January, shaping his shots, getting the right trajectory, the correct divot pattern, his grip, his stance. Even last week, he had a crucial par putt at the 17th hole that reminded him of Augusta.

"In the back of your mind, it is always there," he said.

Just like Woods is in the back of everyone's mind. He comes into the Masters having won or finished second in 10 of his last 11 PGA Tour events. He has won 65.1 percent of the purse in his seven tournaments this year. His worse score this year is a 73 at Spyglass.

No, he doesn't win every week.

Phil Mickelson stopped Woods' winning streak at six - the longest on tour since 1945 - at San Diego and will be a threat to finally win his first major at Augusta.

Darren Clarke outplayed Woods to win the Match Play Championship and could be the one to add to Europe's 11 victories in the Masters since 1980, including that of Jose Maria Olazabal last year.

Hal Sutton verbally challenged Woods in The Players Championship, then beat him on an unforgiving course by making par or better on 44 of the final 45 holes. Sutton hasn't made the cut in the Masters since 1985, but he reminded his peers that Woods is human.

Woods might not win the Masters this week, but odds are he will at least give himself a chance. He always does.

"That's one of the reasons why I changed my golf swing in '97, is that I felt like I couldn't be in contention every time I teed it up with the swing I used to have," he said. "Now my bad shots aren't bad. My good shots are always going to be pretty good, but it's the bad ones that are the key to shooting good, solid numbers."

A year ago, Woods sat in the interview room at Augusta National under a dimmer spotlight. The best player in the world was David Duval, who had won four times before the Masters and presented more than a threat to Woods' throne.

Just look at Woods now. Dating to last year's Masters, he won 10 times and hasn't finished worse than 18th in a stroke-play tournament.

During that same span, his top four challengers - Duval, Mickelson, Davis Love III and Ernie Els - have combined to win one tournament.

"I don't count him out of any tournament nowadays," said Mark O'Meara, the '98 Masters champion. "He's developed all the shots. His advantage with his length and with his short game and putting ... Augusta fits his game to a tee."

Still, the Masters does not belong to Woods alone.

Duval, who has gone a year without winning, has given himself a chance on the back nine Sunday each of the past two years. He has been in position to win four times this year and insists he is "almost there."

Els played well enough in Hawaii to beat Woods instead of losing in a playoff. Even Love, a four-time runner-up to Woods, sounds like he's up to the challenge.

"He hasn't won it yet," Love said. "It's not his for us to take away."

It is not the same Augusta as when Woods conquered the course in 1997. Officials added rough of about an inch, added length to a couple of holes and rebuilt some greens to add even more treacherous pin positions.

It is not the same field. Augusta National changed the criteria to make the field stronger by placing more emphasis on the world ranking and money lists and eliminating the category that all PGA Tour winners automatically get in. Seven winners will be home this week.

Above all, it is not the same Tiger Woods.

"There used to be courses that suited his game better," Harmon said. "Now, it doesn't matter where he plays because his game is so well-rounded. The harder the course, the easier it is for him because he's so much better."