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Tiger Woods has two main records in sights

Tiger Woods has been chasing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors ever since he won his first Masters, a pursuit that has defined his career.

But that isn't his only target.

Six months ago in the parking lot at Doral, he was asked what records meant the most to him.

``The same ones as always,'' Woods said. ``Majors. And total wins.''

He rarely mentions any other record than the majors, although it was clear he had done his homework. Woods was asked if he knew the career victory record held by Sam Snead, and he quickly replied 81. Then he stopped himself.

``Wait a minute. It's now 82,'' he said.

The PGA Tour did not count the British Open as an official victory until 1995, but changed its bookkeeping in 2002 to accept all previous Open victories, such as Snead's at St. Andrews in 1946.

Woods still has a long road ahead of him, but each victory makes it more plausible.

The latest came Sunday afternoon at the NEC Invitational, where Woods found the one birdie he needed late in the final round to win by one shot over Chris DiMarco. That gave him five victories this year, and 45 for his career.

Sunday also marked the end of nine full years on the PGA Tour, meaning the 29-year-old Woods has averaged five victories a year. Whether he can keep up the pace depends on his health (already one knee surgery), the level of competition and how many more times he decides to revamp his swing.

The latest swing, under the guidance of Hank Haney, is clearly starting to take form.

Woods still will never be mistaken for Scott Verplank when it comes to accuracy off the tee, but his confidence has reached a point that he is not afraid to hit driver. He hit just over half the fairways at Firestone -- 29 of 56 -- but only a couple of them were way off line.

Some believe that big hitters now can bash away because it's just as easy to reach the green with a wedge out of thick grass than with a 7-iron from the fairway. That's not always the case. Woods was in serious trouble just off the 11th fairway Saturday and eventually had to get up-and-down and through a tree to save par.

He took a double-bogey from the trees on the 18th hole Friday that cost him the lead, and had to dodge the same trees Sunday to make par and avoid a playoff.

But he's not backing off.

``I have so much more confidence now in my driving ability than I ever have in my career,'' he said. ``I pull out driver on every hole because I know I can put the ball in the fairway. I've never had that ability before. If you look at my days when I had some good years, I was always hitting 2-irons off the tee, and 3-woods, and trying to get the ball in play. Now, I know I can drive the ball.

``I hit some bad shots, yes, but they're not like they used to be.''

Statistics don't support him, but Woods at least believes he can hit fairways. He now has adopted the strategy that Vijay Singh has employed the last two years by hitting driver on holes where most others play for position.

Another advantage for Woods, again illustrated at Firestone, is his record as a closer.

He improved to 33-3 on the PGA Tour -- and 38-5 worldwide -- when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead. The short list of players who have beaten him in the last group are Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson, Thomas Bjorn, Lee Westwood and Ed Fiori at the '96 Quad City Classic, Woods' third event as a pro.

He probably shouldn't have won at Firestone, not with the number of putts he was missing inside 8 feet. And he probably shouldn't have won the Masters, except that DiMarco couldn't make anything in the final round.

Woods got a break when no one seemed to want to win the NEC Invitational.

Kenny Perry was sailing along until a high hook off the 10th tee that landed behind trees, one of five bogeys he made during a six-hole stretch. ``I just can't hit a fairway,'' he said as he walked up the 13th fairway and over toward a tree.

DiMarco was atop the leaderboard at 6 under until he overcooked a 7-iron on the 17th green that left him in deep grass with not much green to work with. He chipped to 15 feet and made bogey. Paul McGinley was tied for the lead at one point until he went from the left rough to the right rough, then missed a 12-footer for par on the 17th to fall back.

McGinley was lining up his putt when he heard a huge roar down the fairway from the vicinity of the 16th green. He didn't know the distance, only who had made it.

``Was it a big putt he holed?'' McGinley asked.

He was told that it was only an 18-footer, but that it was a critical birdie considering Woods had hit his tee shot into the trees on the 667-yard 16th, had to lay up to 185 yards and then take on the water protecting the flag.

``He seems to be able to have a shot every time he hits it in the trees,'' McGinley said. ``He made some great escapes from trees. He's such a skillful player, that no shot is impossible for him.''

Woods has four tournaments left this year -- next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, the American Express Championship in San Francisco, Disney and the Tour Championship -- to try to pad his total.

His pursuit of Snead's record might help if the PGA Tour played more often in Ohio, where he has won seven times on two courses -- four at Firestone, three at Muirfield Village (Memorial).

Told that a new title sponsor (Bridgestone) meant this World Golf Championship would stay at Firestone through at least 2010, Woods smiled.

``Sweet,'' he said.


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