Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist

Is Woods as Strong as Ever?

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005; 6:59 PM

Seventy five years ago, Bobby Jones won golf's 1930 version of the Grand Slam - the U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, all considered major championships of that time and all captured in the same season.

Fast forward to 2005, a year Tiger Woods will look back on late Sunday afternoon and lament the two bogeys he made down the stretch at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst that likely cost him the chance to win the modern Slam -- all four professional majors in a single season -- a feat never accomplished.

That's because Tiger is going to win the PGA Championship over the next four days at bodacious Baltusrol in New Jersey. It will be his third major championship of the season, having prevailed at The Masters in April and the British Open at St. Andrews last month. And it will mark the second time in five years he's won three of the four majors.

He'll finish the 2005 season with 11 major titles overall, seven short of the one record he covets more than any other, Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors, the last accomplished at the age of 46 at the 1986 Masters.

Amazing isn't it, that at this very same time a year ago, some people were saying out loud and writing for the record that Woods was in a deep slump? Many were predicting he'd never dominate the game the way he did in 2000 and some even wondered if his time had come, and already gone.

After all, he hadn't won a major title in 2½ years since his victory in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. In 2004, not only was he 0-4 in the majors, he didn't even win a single stroke play tournament on the PGA Tour, with his only victory coming at the Match Play Championship back in February.

But Woods clearly knew better. He had ditched his longtime swing instructor, Butch Harmon, the year before. Though he never publicly said why, the reason seemed obvious. Harmon had parlayed his relationship with Woods into becoming a significant celebrity in his own right, as well as a highly sought-after swing instructor by many of Woods's peers on tour.

Woods wasn't terribly comfortable reading quotes attributed to Harmon on the state of his player's game, or watching his teacher go on the air to talk about Woods swing. Woods prefers mostly silence from the people in his inner circle, as the firing of former caddie Mike "Fluff" Cowan several years before had demonstrated.

For the last 18 months, Woods has been working with Hank Haney, the swing instructor who had been the longtime teacher for Mark O'Meara, Woods' Orlando neighbor and best friend. During the 2004 season, Woods's rebuilt swing remained a work in progress, with the player constantly insisting he was getting closer all the time, even if he wasn't winning tournaments.

Hardly anyone believed him after watching him scatter off-line shots, especially off the tee, for most of the year. But clearly, Woods really was getting closer all the time, and starting to hit the ball 20 to 30 yards longer than ever before.

There also were naysayers who predicted that Woods's personal life had been a contributing factor to his inability to win last year. He'd been married following the 2003 Presidents Cup, and they speculated his connubial bliss also had contributed to his on-course doldrums.

But Woods has now demonstrated the foolishness of ever discounting his drive to succeed, his will to win, his ruthless killer instinct in pursuit of major championship titles and ultimately all the significant records of his game.

The swing changes, he insisted, were necessary in order to keep himself ahead of his pursuers, as well as to account for the ongoing changes in his so much bigger body than when he first turned pro in 1996.

"I remember hearing the same conversations with a lot of people in the media back in 1998 and '99," he said this week. "'Why would you make a change after you won the (1997) Masters by 12?' Well, I could win by 13, you know, and I could win more of them. That's the whole idea. That's why I'm making these changes - to become better. People ask me, 'are you there yet?' But you never get there. That's how you have to look at it."

Woods may not be winning majors by 12 shots, as he did in the '97 Masters, or by 15 as he did at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He also may not be quite as dominant in the eyes of many of his peers. "He was unbeatable and we probably believed he was unbeatable," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said this week of Woods five years ago. "In 2000 he was a phenomenal player nobody could touch. Now he's still a great player, but he's probably not as untouchable as he was."

And yet, on Sunday night, when he wins his third major of the season, the hard fact remains that save for two bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes at Pinehurst No. 2, Tiger Woods would have become the first player in 75 years to win all four majors in a single season. Maybe he's not quite as untouchable as he once was, but can there be any doubt now that we're watching the greatest golfer in the history of the game?

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com.

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