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Tiger Woods hoping to peak in his 30s

The moment was a reminder that Tiger Woods isn't getting any younger.

He was walking toward his bag on the practice range at Sherwood Country Club and noticed a small crowd gathered around his mother, who was standing in her socks, hitting balls with his 5-wood.

"Mom, I haven't seen you hit a ball in 10 years," he told her.

Then, Kultida Woods sat in a chair behind her son and watched him work, just as she did when he was a boy.

His swing is nothing like it was when Woods turned pro in August 1996, certainly not the stinger shot with his driver that he began working on a month ago. The goatee is now a permanent fixture. The skinny kid from Stanford is now chiseled. He is a married man, who wants children sooner rather than later.

Woods turns 30 at the end of the month, making the Target World Challenge the final tournament in his 20s.

"Pretty impressive decade," David Toms said, shaking his head.

Woods won 46 times on the PGA Tour in his 20s; only six men have won more in their careers. His 10 majors trail only Jack Nicklaus (18) and Walter Hagen (11).

And considering most golfers blossom in their 30s, Woods might just be getting started.

"If you look at most of the guys' careers, it looks like their peak years are in their 30s," Woods said. "Hopefully, that will be the case for me. Hopefully, my 30s will be better than my 20s. Obviously, there is a lot deeper competition, a lot more work I need to do, work to accomplish those goals.

"But winning major championships is what I want to do for the rest of my career."

The focus has always been on Nicklaus' record for most majors. Woods reached the halfway point by capturing the Masters in a playoff, and he reached double digits with a wire-to-wire victory at the British Open, where Nicklaus played a major for the final time.

If Nicklaus indeed is his gauge, Woods is on pace.

Nicklaus won 30 times in his 20s, although he didn't turn pro until he was 22. Seven of those were majors, including three green jackets (Woods now has four).

What does the next decade hold?

"If he keeps his desire the way it is, there are no limits for how good he can be," Thomas Bjorn said Wednesday. "He was dominant from the day he came out. We were well aware we had someone special on our hands."

Arnold Palmer won 44 times and six majors in his 30s, the most PGA Tour victories by anyone at that age. Nicklaus won 38 times and eight majors in his 30s, and if Woods matches him, that would put him at 84 victories (breaking Sam Snead's record of 82 career wins) and 18 majors (tying Nicklaus).

And to think that his biggest goal when he turned pro was to avoid Q-school.

Woods still considers his rookie year -- or two months, in his case -- to be among his greatest achievements. He was trying to earn enough money to secure his card for the '97 season, and wound up qualifying for the Tour Championship with two victories in seven starts.

"I was praying not to go to Q-school," he said. "I had my application sent in, and because I had no status, I had to go to first stage. I was hoping that wouldn't happen, because anything can happen."

Then came the '97 Masters, which he won with a record score (18-under 270) by a record margin (12 shots). Back then, winning a major came with a 10-year exemption on tour, and Woods figured he was set.

On Tuesday, Woods won the PGA Tour player of the year award for the seventh time, and this was the fifth time in nine full seasons that he has won player of the year, the money title and Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average.

"He's one of those special guys that doesn't come along very often," Toms said. "Watching his game, how he goes about his business, it's still very impressive. You can tell he's been able to do what he's done because he's different. He's more driven and more focused than any person I've ever been around in professional golf."

It was only a year ago at this tournament that he no longer was No. 1 in the world, replaced by Vijay Singh, and players were whispering that his swing changes with Hank Haney were holding him back.

Woods was overly sensitive to the criticism last year, but now says he understands. He overhauled his swing with Butch Harmon after his record win at the Masters, and came back with one of the greatest stretches in golf, including four straight majors.

This change was partly about health.

"That's the reason why I made the changes, to relieve some stress on my body parts that were taking a pounding," said Woods, who had surgery on his left knee at the end of 2002. "The end result is I've relieved some stress there, which has been great. I've been more healthy and feeling better."

U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell played with Woods in China and at the Grand Slam, and noticed a swing that looks less forced, more natural. Woods, who was starting to grasp Haney's changes about this time last year, said he is 10 times better and no longer needs to call Haney whenever something goes wrong.

Health likely will play a big role in his 30s. For, as much as Woods works out, he complained of a rib injury at the Presidents Cup and an ankle injury when he was in Asia.

Most players believe the bigger question is desire.

"I'll quit playing when I can't play any more, when my best isn't good enough," Woods said. "I've been to the top, where if I play my best, I know I can win. If my best isn't good enough, why am I out here? I'll go home."

December 8, 2005

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