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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

Woods down but not out

DUBLIN, Ohio - It is both predictable and funny. Tiger Woods goes a couple months without a win and, suddenly, that dreaded “S” word crops up. You know, the one that rhymes with rump, lump and bump.

Well, allow us to define slump for you. David Duval. The dear lad behind the shades has played in 11 events this year and has earned $44,876. The man who once upon a time displaced Woods from atop the world golf rankings has missed seven straight cuts and is averaging 73.91 strokes per round.

Tiger, on the other hand, has played in just six events, won three of them, cashed to the tune of $3 million and leads the tour with a 68.47 stroke average.

Sound like a slump to you?

Woods comes to Muirfield Village this week looking to become the first four-time champion of the Memorial. We know that because he is the only three-time champion.

But he hasn't won since Bay Hill in mid-March; he came up short at Augusta and he settled for 29th overseas at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open, a tournament he normally dominates, and people question if all is well with his golf game.

Quit wondering, says the world's No. 1-ranked player.

“I feel pretty good and my game is fine,” he said yesterday. “I'm very pleased with the way I'm hitting it right now. I hit the ball really well in Germany. I just need to get on some good, smooth greens. The greens over there definitely weren't like this. Sometimes we forget how good it really is here in the states. There's no place like home.”

And Muirfield Village has been like a second home to Woods, who won three straight Memorial titles before finishing eight shots behind Jim Furyk at last year's mid-Ohio electrical storm.

Oh yeah, by the way, it's supposed to rain today. Thunderstorms, wind, the works. Sunup to sundown. It is, after all, the Memorial.

“It's a pretty simple week to pack for,” Woods said. “You just pack your rain gear and that's all you need.”

That and a game plan.

Tiger's plan is always to use the Memorial as a stepping-stone to the U.S. Open. If he wins along the way, well, dandy.

“That's what everybody is getting ready for, which is why you get such a strong international field here,” Woods said. “This is the second [and last] tournament I'm playing in between the Masters and the Open, but my practice sessions have been pretty good, so I don't think it really matters that much.

“If my practice sessions hadn't been good I might be a little more concerned with playing only twice, but based on the way I struck the ball in Germany and the way I hit it today, I'm very pleased.”

So, no slump.

And on practice day, no sleep.

Tiger was up before the birds yesterday. He was on the course at 6:30, off it by 10:30.

“I get up that early every day, I don't even need an alarm. I like to play early because there are fewer distractions. It's a little bit easier on me and my playing partners to actually get some work done. Granted, we understand that we're trying to entertain the fans, but I'm also trying to get ready to win this tournament.”

By the end of his practice round, the 18th fairway was lined with spectators and the green was surrounded as if it were late on a Sunday.

But that's just part of being Tiger, the constant hoopla on and off the course. With $36 million in career earnings and countless millions more in endorsement income, he isn't about to complain.

“I get to do what I love to do for a living. I mean, that's what I dreamed about as a kid. The extra stuff that comes with the responsibility of being in the position I'm in, well, there is no class that will ever prepare you for it. I don't fight it anymore. I did at first. I just had to go out and learn from my experiences.”

Because of his limited playing schedule thus far in 2003, Woods finds himself No. 3 on the money list behind Davis Love III and Mike Weir.

Now that his spring vacation is over, it may not take long for that to change. In fact, the next four days could change that, with a $900,000 first prize up for grabs.

“Davis and Mike have had great years,” Tiger said. “But I've only played in six tournaments and I'm up there. It's summer now. I'll be playing more and we'll see [where] I am at the end of the year.”



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