Slumping Tiger, Wishful Thinking

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

I don't know what ball Thomas Bjorn was hitting in Dubai, but it probably didn't cause Tiger Woods to splash his third shot on the last hole into a lake in front of the green. Woods did that on his own and "lost" for the ninth straight time dating back to last September's Canadian Open. As obsessive golf fans will tell you, he has won three non-tour events since then, in Hawaii, Thailand and Argentina.

Trust the peerless Nicklaus, upon whose brilliant career Woods is modeling his own, to put "the slump," the springtime hopes of Tiger's fellow pros and the cruelties inflicted by the Scots' grand old game into undeniable perspective. When he ran into Woods recently at the ESPY Awards in Las Vegas, Nicklaus told an interviewer, he reminded the younger man: "There's only about 10 million people out there who would love to be in the slump you're in."

The Golden Bear would know. Between 1962 and 1978, he won at least two tournaments every year, and he had five or more wins in seven of those seasons. But he also played through many eight- and nine-tournament droughts, while fans and reporters wondered aloud if he'd lost his touch, or his desire, or his dogged work ethic.

In 2001, no one is questioning Tiger Woods's will to win or his unrivaled effort. Some, however, think the mojo and the magic are gone, at least for now. And maybe they are. But when the pros tee it up at the Masters three weeks from now, it's unlikely that any of them will be talking about what kind of ball to play or suggesting that the colossus of 2000 is not up to the task at Augusta, in the tournament Johnny Miller called the "annual spring putting contest."

More likely, Joe Durant, along Thomas Bjorn and company, will be looking up at the leader board to find a Hidden Dragon's name in big, bold letters.

Out of bounds: Poor Dick Ebersol must be grateful he's still got NBA hoops on the schedule -- even if viewers are increasingly unhappy with the current penchant for hip-hop and fistfights. Because Ebersol, majordomo of NBC Sports, is stuck with the XFL, at least until the whole miserable experiment folds this spring. For now, the new semi-football league's Saturday night ratings continue to sink -- despite the mini-cams in the cheerleaders' hot pants. Alleged "analyst" Jesse Ventura's pathetic attempt to pick a fight with a winless head coach certainly hasn't helped. To his credit, Rusty Tillman, coach of the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, refuses to engage in pro-wrestling-style theatrics with Ventura, preferring to stay on message and preach X's and O's to his underpaid, beleaguered players.

Still, Ventura fumes on without purpose, telling Tillman his business and pretending to know the difference between a fly pattern and flypaper.

Hey, guv, don't a coupla highways need plowing up near Duluth?

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