Woods searches for the sublime secret

US PGA: After two majors without landing a serious blow, Tiger has retreated to his lair to prepare for Atlanta
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The Independent Online

Everyone else has had their say about the ending of Tiger Woods' major-winning streak so why not his mother? Kultida Woods says the effort involved in claiming an historic fourth successive major title at the Masters earlier this year was simply overwhelming and that a relative lull was only to be expected.

Woods was able to enjoy the unique privilege of having all four of golf's major championship trophies on his living-room coffee table for less than two months. Inevitably, he has had to start handing them back but the surprise has been that the world No 1 did not put up more of a fight to hang on to the US Open and the Open Championship pots.

This will not stop Woods starting the US PGA Championship, at the Atlanta Athletic Club, as a firm favourite to secure a hat-trick of wins in the event. Results of 12th in Tulsa and 25th at Royal Lytham hardly suggest a crisis, but it is difficult not to ponder the reasons for Woods failing to get into contention when not so long ago he appeared able to conquer through the sheer force of his determination.

Woods played supreme golf, perhaps what will turn out to be his best ever, at the US Open at Pebble Beach last summer and The Open at St Andrews. In the US PGA at Valhalla and, even more so, at the Masters this April, it was his commitment to getting the job done that saw off his opponents. Bending the golfing gods to his will is not something Woods could sustain indefinitely. Tiger, as well as his mother, appreciates the point. "Golf is a fickle game," Woods said at Lytham. "I probably understand that a lot more than you guys."

The theory is certainly more credible than some that have been doing the rounds, namely that he has been distracted by a new girlfriend ­ thought to be Gabrielle Reece, the supermodel turned beach volleyball player turned golfer ­ and by having Tom Cruise stay with him at The Open.

Unconfirmed by the Woods campis the more relevant suggestion that Tiger is still being troubled by a sore right Achilles tendon. Pulling out of the Buick Open this weekend means Woods has not played a meaningful event since The Open but ­ despite rumours he is spending too much time fishing ­ rest and hard practice are probably more valuable to him. Southern Hills and Lytham both presented exams that were impossible to pass without swinging well. Woods was not immune. "My mechanics were a little off," Tiger said. "Everybody understands you are not going to play well every week."

Indeed not, but that is just the opposite of what Woods said after winning the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997. Then he set about tightening up his game and though it took almost two years, it worked spectacularly. Earlier this year, he specifically altered his swing for Augusta to bring back some of the shots he had ditched. Some of the wayward drives and the lack of distance control with his short irons that have characterised his play this summer are reminiscent of his early days.

"It's frustrating for Tiger because he is hitting it so good on the range and he's not hitting it good on the course," said Mark O'Meara, who played with Woods at Lytham. "When Tiger goes bad, he gets too quick through the ball. It looks like he's going too fast with his body and not fast enough with his arms."

The Highland course at the Atlanta Athletic Club, where Woods has never played, was remodelled by Rees Jones in 1995. The last US PGA venue to get the Jones treatment was Sahalee, where Vijay Singh won three years ago. Though the rough will be characteristically deep, the layout should favour the bigger hitters. The course was rebuilt in 1967 and had so many designers tinker with it that it proved a hotch-potch venue for the 1976 US Open, won by Jerry Pate, and the US PGA in 1981, won by Larry Nelson.

David Duval played the course many times before the Jones redesign while he was a student at Georgia Tech. The Open champion says he will be entering "with a little more of a swagger, that's for sure". The weather will play its part as Atlanta in August is likely to be even hotter and more humid than Tulsa in June.

European attention centres on Sergio Garcia, 12th and ninth in the last two majors, and Jesper Parnevik. Victory is not out of the question for either and would help Sam Torrance's wild card headaches no end. Garcia has announced he will return for the last qualifying event, the BMW International in Munich, but must hope to make it an unnecessary journey.

Curtis Strange's decision day comes immediately after the US PGA, and with virtually all the leading players safely within the top 10, he has a wide choice. Jim Furyk, who has been troubled by a wrist injury, Brad Faxon, Paul Azinger and Justin Leonard will be in his thoughts.

"What we have going for us, and what makes my job tough, is that we have a lot of depth," Strange said. "Anyone in the top 25 can help us. I'm just trying to pick the two best guys I can possibly find. How I define that is, who has experience, who has big heart, who has guts, who has the game, who can handle playing in front of the crowd, who can handle coming down the stretch on Sunday afternoon with the Ryder Cup on his shoulders. All of those things make a good player great."