Woods seeks fourth Western Open title
Tiger Woods had barely settled into his chair when the barrage began.
He wasn't a factor in either of the year's first two majors. Hadn't won that much on the regular tour, either. And his swing continues to be in a state of flux.
Sound familiar? Woods heard the same questions when he arrived at last year's Western Open -- then went out and promptly shattered a bunch of records on his way to a wire-to-wire win.
``Certainly I'm not playing as well as I know I can,'' Woods said Wednesday after his pro-am round at the Western Open. ``I feel like the game is very close to coming together. I know I keep saying that, but I feel in my heart of hearts that it is. I'm close to putting it together.''
What better place to do it than the Western, one of his favorite tournaments? Woods played the Western's amateur tournament when he was growing up, and he's played this tournament every year but one since he turned pro, winning three times. He withdrew in 2002 with the flu.
His first victory in 1997 remains one for the ages, with fans breaking through the ropes to follow him, Pied Piper-like, up the 18th fairway. Last year, he gave a resounding answer to all the critics of his game -- at least for one week.
After opening with a 9-under 63 that tied the course and tournament records, he went on to win by five strokes. His 21-under 267 matched the Western Open record, and he was the tournament's first start-to-finish winner since 1993.
And he's clearly excited to be back on familiar ground. A grin spread across his face as he talked about his past trips to Cog Hill Golf Club, and he seems very much at home here. He was relaxed as he talked about what's wrong with his game, not showing any of the defensiveness he had at the U.S. Open earlier in the month.
``Any time you come to a golf course where you've had success, you usually feel pretty good,'' Woods said. ``If you're playing great or poorly, you still feel like you can play well around a golf course that you played well on in the past, and that's been the case when I've played at Bay Hill or Memorial.
``I may go in the tournament hitting it great, may go in there hitting it terrible. But for some reason I've turned it around and really played well, just because I like the golf course and a lot of the holes just fit my eye. This golf course is very similar to that.''
While part of that is just personal comfort, familiarity can also give a big practical advantage. Aside from owner Frank Jemsek, there probably aren't too many people who know the Cog Hill course better than Woods. He knows what clubs to hit when. Where he needs to put shots on every hole. What holes will get tough if there's rain or wind or high temperatures.
Instead of calculating yardage and deciding what clubs to use, Woods could spend his pro-am round Wednesday tinkering with a new driver.
``I just feel comfortable on it because I've had success on it in the past,'' he said. ``The only thing I need to know is where is my landing area now as opposed to where it was before.''
Two holes on the course were changed for this year's tournament. The fifth hole was shortened 45 yards and will play as a par 4 at 480 yards, making the Dubsdread Course a par 71 for the first time. No. 5 had been an eagle hole for many players in the last few years.
A more significant change was to the par-5 ninth, where the tee box was backed up 38 yards to make the hole play at 600 yards.
``That was a really tough hole to begin with. It's going to be extremely difficult now,'' said Jerry Kelly, the 2002 winner. ``It's going to play over par if we play into the wind, I guarantee you.''
The changes don't seem to bother Woods. Then again, he's got enough on his plate with his ever-evolving game.
Woods is an 0-for-8 slump at the majors, not winning one since the 2002 U.S. Open. He's also struggled away from the majors. He's won once in 11 starts this year, the Match Play Championship, and has only two victories since winning the Western last year.
Those numbers might not be so glaring for anyone else, but Woods set an unbelievable standard with his run in 1999 and 2000. He won 17 of the 41 tournaments he entered, and finished in the top five in eight others. He won four majors, and when he won the 2001 Masters, he held all four major titles at the same time -- a Tiger Slam.
Some have questioned whether he's lost focus since getting engaged to Elin Nordegren, but Woods scoffed at that notion.
``I was living with Elin when I won my two majors in 2002. We had already made a commitment to each other back then,'' Woods said. ``Our relationship hasn't changed, so it's not her fault. It's not my family's fault, not my friends' fault. It's nobody's fault but my own for not putting the ball in the hole fast enough.
``Everybody goes through highs and lows in their career. Everyone,'' he added. ``You don't want to do that, trust me. But it happens.''
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