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Tiger shows that he's human

After Tiger Woods made six bogeys and struggled to a third-round 75 in the U.S. Open, a reporter bluntly asked him if he was in a slump. Woods laughed and shook his head, at once amused and annoyed, then pointed out he had won three times in seven starts this year.

"And you're trying to tell me I'm in a slump?" he said.

"I want you to say it," the reporter persisted.

Woods' forced smile quickly turned to an icy stare.

"I think I just said it," he said tersely, before being whisked away by a United States Golf Association official.

The question, though poorly timed and phrased, was legitimate.

Is Woods in a slump?

He hasn't won since the Bay Hill Invitational in mid-March. For the first time in three years, he is not the reigning champion of at least one major. His tie for 20th at Olympia Fields was his worst finish in a U.S. Open since 1996, when he was still an amateur.

Woods has owned weekends in majors for three years but at Olympia Fields he appeared, for lack of a better word, vulnerable. He made eight bogeys and a double over the final 36 holes and at times seemed to allow his frustration with one shot to affect the next. That's not the Tiger Woods we have come to know.

After clawing his way into the periphery of contention at 1-under par Sunday, he four-putted from the fringe on the ninth hole, a bit of carelessness that was so uncharacteristic it was shocking.

Granted, if Woods were any other member of the PGA Tour, we would be talking about what a great year he has had. He leads the Tour in scoring with a 68.42 average and has won three of eight starts, a .375 percentage that compares favorably with his .267 mark as a professional before this year.

But Woods is held to a higher standard.

And, quite obviously, his game has not been sharp lately.

He is struggling with his driver and his putter, the two clubs that always separated him from the pack. From 2000 to the end of the '02 season, nobody drove it as consistently straight and long as Woods and nobody putted better, particularly from 4 to 10 feet.

Now, a lot of people do.

Woods is ranked 118th on Tour in driving accuracy and 30th in driving distance. He is ranked 33rd in greens in regulation, after finishing first last year, fifth in 2001 and first in 2000.

Phil Mickelson said early in the year that Woods' record was especially impressive because he played with "inferior equipment." Mickelson meant it as a compliment, but the good folks at Nike Golf didn't take it that way, and neither did Woods.

Still, Mickelson might have had a point.

Woods seemingly can't get comfortable with his Nike driver and reportedly experimented with a Taylor Made model last month in Germany. He barely pulled the Nike driver out of the bag at the U.S. Open until the final round, when he estimated he hit it six times.

Woods claimed there was no room for him to hit driver at Olympia Fields, but plenty of other big hitters didn't have that problem.

It was on the greens at Olympia Fields, however, where Woods seemed befuddled. He took 35 putts in the third round, 32 in the fourth and averaged 31.3 for the week.

"People don't realize there is a lot of poa (annua) on the greens," Woods said, sounding a lot like a man looking for an excuse. "The putts uphill are so slow and the putts downhill are extremely quick. It's tough to try to gauge (the speed) when you're putting across slopes and stuff like that."

OK, Tiger, so what's your point? It's always tough gauging speed and break on greens in major championships. That's one of the elements that makes them major championships.

Could it be that Woods' putting stroke is off a hair, or that the tiniest speck of doubt has cracked his heretofore impenetrable confidence? Woods missed many more 5- and 6-footers at Olympia Fields than he usually does.

"It's not like I'm going out there and I can't hit a shot," he said. "It's a matter of making some putts."

In his most expansive post-round interview of the week, Woods said Sunday that his desire to win and compete was stronger than ever, adding that he still got "a rush" from hitting good shots under pressure.

He also said he was looking forward to getting married and starting a family someday and that when the day comes it will hurt his golf game.

"There's no doubt about it," he said. "More than anything, it would be hard to prepare because your focus is somewhere else, with your family. When it comes right down to it, your success is minuscule compared with the success of your kids."

For the immediate future, however, Woods will continue to focus on winning major championships. He has been stuck on eight - 10 behind Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 - for a year.

It's certainly no time to panic, but the game that once seemed so simple has become a bit perplexing. It happens, apparently, even to the best of them.

"I've never thought it to be simple," Woods said. "Anyone who plays the game of golf knows it's not easy."


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