Slumping Tiger, Wishful Thinking

Golfers kicking Woods when he's down may get toasted by a Hidden Dragon.

The best thing that ever happened to the PGA Tour, the sages of the fairway say, is Tiger Woods's completely dominant performance in 2000 -- nine PGA wins (including three majors), more than $9 million in earnings, and the lowest scoring average (68.17 per round) in history. Even wheat farmers in Belarus and gondoliers in Venice knew the 24-year-old phenom had won the British Open, the U.S. Open and almost everything else.

The next best thing to happen on tour, the same deep thinkers claim, is Tiger's performance this year.

Earl and Kultida's kid Eldrick is oh-for-five in 2001, zip-for-six when you count his stunning collapse a week ago Sunday on the final hole of the non-PGA Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab Emirates. The best golfer in the world has supposedly proven himself merely mortal, and the guys who got all hot and sweaty swinging for second place last season are daring to hint that Woods's magic is lost in the rough. But hope springs anew at Phoenix and Pebble Beach. David (and his pal Davis) now have a shot against Goliath -- especially if Goliath dumps the occasional seven-iron in the drink. "This is great for the game," says network golf analyst Gary McCord. "The other guys are trying to beat the hell out of him while they have him on the ground."

Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, who bested Tiger by two strokes on the sands of Dubai when Woods double-bogeyed the 72nd hole, goes further. "The intimidation is disappearing," he said. "People are now starting to realize you can't get intimidated by him. You have to beat him."

That's great, Thomas. Shoot on. But Hamlet had a peculiar vision of kings, too. Any workaday tour pro who thinks the Slumping Tiger doesn't have a Hidden Dragon inside of him, just waiting to break loose, probably needs to book a few sessions with The Sopranos' Dr. Melfi. Woods's twelve-footers may be lipping out this year, and his best PGA finish may be a fourth at the Buick Invitational, but the notion that he won't be the top earner or the most dominant player of 2001 amounts to wishful thinking. Brevity is still the soul of wit, and Bjorn's comments will briefly be history.

For now, the leading money-winner (with nearly $1.5 million) on the tour is one Joe Durant, who once took a job as an insurance salesman when his game went sour. This year he is delighting fantasy-ridden golf fans everywhere with his Walter Mittyesque ways. Durant shot a combined 54 under par in the Bob Hope Classic and in last week's Genuity Championship, winning both events and becoming the first player to prevail in consecutive PGA starts since Woods did it last summer.

"Strange how things happen," the modest Durant said. "The last couple of weeks have just been unbelievable for me." There was no talk from him about how Woods's intimidation factor is fading, or why everybody else now has a puncher's chance at the champ. If Durant scores a few more top tens this year, he'll likely be a happy man. (By the way, he says that when he was in the insurance biz, he never sold a single policy.)

Assorted theories have emerged about why Tiger Woods hasn't won a tournament this year. The first, of course, is that he really is in a slump -- especially on the green. "Tiger is playing well," Jack Nicklaus opines. "He told me he's just not making the putts." On the other hand, Woods's scoring average prior to his junket to the Middle East (where he was paid a cool $2 million just to show up) was exactly the same as it was at this point last year -- a shade under 69 strokes per round. Another theory holds that everyone else on the PGA Tour has intensified his practice regimen and picked up his game in the wake of Tiger's dynamic 2000. To be sure, there have been nine different winners in ten tour events this year, and tournament scoring records were broken at five of them. The David Duvals and Phil Mickelsons of the world -- maybe even the upstart Joe Durants -- have taken stock in the off-season, this theory goes, and simply toughened up.

The third -- and most interesting -- Taming-the-Tiger theory has to do with equipment. It was notably raised last week by Sports Illustrated golf columnist Alan Shipnuck and endorsed, more or less, by a number of tour pros. In 2000, Shipnuck wrote, Woods began playing a new solid-core golf ball designed by his well-paying friends at Nike. It may have been a distinct advantage, and no other player had it. The SI writer quoted Davis Love III as saying: "Last summer Tiger had the ball that we all wanted. We were dying to get our hands on it, but we had to wait our turn."

In the fall of last year, Titlelist (the brand endorsed and played by most tour pros) came out with its own solid-core tour ball, and many of Woods's opponents -- especially "short hitters" like Jim Furyk and Brad Faxon -- started shooting better. Was this an actual or a psychological effect? No one knows, but Shipnuck says the lively new ball is "as much an advance in technology as the invention of the lob wedge or the transition from wood to metal."

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