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Sam Snead's record a target for Tiger Woods

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.

In 2005, 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 last fall at the WGC-American Express Championship, where he defeated John Daly in a playoff. That gave him six victories this year, and 46 for his career.

At the end of nine full years on the PGA Tour, the newly 30-year-old Woods has averaged a tick more than 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.

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. But even though he sometimes finds himself in trouble off the tee, 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 in his last two victories, at the Amex and before that in the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone, is his record as a closer.

He has improved to 34-3 on the PGA Tour -- and 39-5 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 leader board 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.''

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 the World Golf Championship would stay at Firestone through at least 2010, Woods smiled.

"Sweet,'' he said.

January 3, 2006

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