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Woods-Nicklaus comparisons are in play again

Tiger Woods used to keep a list taped to his bedroom wall of all Jack Nicklaus accomplished, such as his U.S. Amateur victories, his NCAA title and above all the 18 professional majors that serve as a benchmark to the greatest career in golf.

Here's one Woods probably didn't include.

With his victory Sunday in the NEC Invitational on Sunday, Woods became the youngest player to win five times in one year since Nicklaus won his fifth tournament of 1963 in the Sahara Invitational at the same age -- 23 years, 8 months, 30 days.

Only Woods isn't finished.

He still has at least three tournaments left this year, maybe more. The way he has played since May, it is not unreasonable to think Woods can win again -- maybe win them all.

The NEC Invitational was his fifth victory in his last eight tournaments. Not even David Duval was this hot when he won four times in the eight tournaments leading to the Masters, in what now seems like an eternity ago.

"I'm playing well, but I kept thinking this week that it's just a culmination of hard work," Woods said after his one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson in the World Golf Championship event for Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players.

"I'm starting to reap dividends of a better game."

And all of a sudden, the comparisons to Nicklaus are starting to come into focus again.

They first surfaced when Woods overwhelmed Augusta National more than Nicklaus ever did, winning with a record-score of 270 by a record-margin of 12 strokes.

Nicklaus even suggested that Woods might win 10 green jackets before he was done, which sounded like a stretch when Woods went 10 majors before winning another one. But while Woods has only two majors to three for Nicklaus when he was 23, he has won 12 times on the PGA Tour, compared to eight times by Nicklaus at this stage.

The way Woods has dominated the deep and talented pool of worldwide players can make one only wonder what the future holds.

"It can still get better," Woods said.

He has been saying all along he is building a swing that will make him more consistent, more controlled. No one believed him, especially since he won only one time on the PGA Tour last year.

Nick Price saw it with his own eyes.

"I played with him in the U.S. Open in '95 at Shinnecock Hills, and there was a lot of raw talent there," Price said. "Over the last two or three years, every time I've played with him it seems like he's just rounding off an edge here or there. I think he's going to continue to improve, too."

Price's only concern is that Woods doesn't lose his edge. The pressure on him isn't as great as when Tigermania peaked in mid-1997, but it is still greater than what any other player faces.

Woods took home $1 million from Firestone Country Club, making him the first player to surpass $4 million in one season and giving him a more than $8.9 million in three full years on the PGA Tour, already good enough for 12th in career earnings.

He also is in the middle of renegotiating his contract with Nike, a five-year deal reported to be in the neighborhood of $80 million to $90 million. Woods said this week those figures were too high, but that was before he won yet again.

"By the time he gets to 25 or 26, he's going to have conquered a lot of mountains," Price said. "He'll have all the money in the world. He'll have probably won more majors in the next three years. It's just a question of can he keep going like Nicklaus did.

"The way he looks right now, he'll be able to," Price added. ``My hat's off to him."

Woods became the first player to win five tournaments in a season since Price in 1994. Price, who won the British Open and the PGA Championship that year, remembers what it was like to show up at every tournament feeling that if he played well, he would win -- or at least have a really good chance.

"It's very hard to describe," Price said. ``You feel like it's never going to come to an end."

Greg Norman, when asked about Duval's play before the Masters, recalls feeling so confident at times he would stand on the first tee, look around and wonder who was going to finish second that week.

Woods doesn't quite see it that way, even if his play suggests otherwise.

"I never had that outlook," he said. ``I've always been very confident in my abilities, but not the point where I'm going to say something like that. There are 72 holes, and anything can happen. I need to go out there and take care of business."

No one is doing it better right now.

AP