-- Phil Mickelson is enough of a student of the game to believe that Tiger Woods's current drought of seven major championships without a victory is more of an aberration than a trend.
"I think we all know when Tiger reaches his level of play, he is still almost unstoppable," the 2004 Masters champion said Tuesday at Shinnecock Hills, where the 104th U.S. Open will begin Thursday. "We're still trying to get to that level where we can compete with him when he's playing his best. And I appreciate that he's sharing the wealth and letting us win some tournaments."
Woods, 28, and the winner of eight major titles, is no longer dominating the game as he did in winning seven majors from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 Open victory at Bethpage Black, about 65 miles west of here. That was his last major championship, and the scrutiny that has followed has occasionally left the world's No. 1 player a bit testy.
Today, Woods was mostly all sweetness and smiles during the news conference he typically holds the Tuesday before any event he plays. Yet he soured somewhat when asked about the television announcers who keep analyzing his swing ad nauseum at every tournament he enters, especially when they compare it to his moves toward the ball three and four years ago.
"Am I tired of it? Yeah," Woods said. "A lot of times they don't have an understanding of what I'm trying to work on or what they conceive is a nice golf swing. . . .
"I think that's where you have to step out of the box sometimes, which these guys don't. That's where it's frustrating. We laugh about it on tour how these guys think they know everything, but they don't. They're not out there watching us play every shot, working on the range. When they take out a shot for me in 2000 and compare it to a shot I hit this year, you don't know if I'm hitting a fade . . . a draw . . . if I'm hitting it high or hitting it low. You don't know what kind of lie I have, and you try to compare those two swings and it's totally different. You can't."
This much is known: Woods has struggled to keep his tee shots in the fairway for a good portion of the season, though he seemed to be bucking that trend in his last tournament two weeks ago at the Memorial. He's made up for some of that driving inaccuracy with generally exemplary work around the greens. He's third in putting on the PGA Tour, a significant reason he's still fourth in scoring average with 69.67 strokes per round and fourth on the money list with $2.8 million.
Woods has seven top-10 finishes in his 10 events on the PGA Tour; he tied for third, tied for fourth and placed third in his last three events and keeps extending his record for consecutive cuts made -- currently 124 -- which broke Byron Nelson's record of 113 last year. Among active players, the second-longest cut streak is 22 by Jerry Kelly. Woods has held the top spot now for a record 252 weeks, and no matter what happens this week, he'll stay No. 1 in the rankings.
No one has dominated during Woods's drought. The seven majors since Bethpage have been won by seven players, including the current unprecedented streak of six straight by first-time major champions.
Still, there is no question that a number of the game's biggest names -- Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia, among others -- have been able to close the gap, and probably have been playing better golf than Woods for most of this season.
Els said again Tuesday he thought Singh, with three victories, nine top-10s and a tour leading $4.6 million, was probably playing the best of all. "But obviously things change out here pretty quickly, and I won at Memorial," he said. "I'm up to number two [in the world now], but we're all so close."
Said Woods: "I know that I haven't played up to my absolute peak. But who does week in and week out? It certainly is not from a lack of effort, and I know that I'm going to be making some great progress this year, so I'm pretty excited about it."
Woods also knows that he probably should have won at least twice in his last seven major championships. That includes last year's British Open when he finished fourth at Royal St. George when unknown Ben Curtis prevailed, and the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine when Rich Beem made key birdies down the stretch to hold off Woods by a shot.
"I felt like the one at St. George was the one I should have won," Woods said. "I was playing really well the entire week, and I didn't make any putts on the back nine Sunday. I had three good looks at putts from 15 feet on in. All I needed to do was make one, and it was a totally different story."
Shinnecock Hills has been getting rave reviews , including from Woods, who probably won't be hitting his driver very often. He has been working on that so-called "stinger" 2-iron off the tee, a low trajectory line drive to pierce the wind and gain yards on the ground.
"This is going to be a fantastic tournament the way the golf course is set up," Woods said. "It's one of the best set-ups I've ever seen. It's fair; it's difficult. The winds are blowing this year, so it's going to be a great test. I don't think there's another U.S. Open like this one. This is actually like a British Open. You can putt from 30, 40 yards off the green if you so choose. That's certainly not the case at any other Open venue we play."
Woods's last experience at Shinnecock Hills was not particularly pleasant. He sprained ligaments in his left hand trying to hack the ball out of tall fescue at the sixth hole and was forced to withdraw on the spot.
After not playing last week, he said he's come to the eastern end of Long Island healthy, relaxed and refreshed, just the way he wants to be entering a major championship.
"Whether I come in here with my game great or not so great, as long as I come in here fresh, I feel like I can still win," he said. "I've come into majors not hitting worth a damn and won. I felt like, because I was so fresh, I had plenty of strength to play all four days and stay mentally focused 100 percent on every shot, and that's not easy to do."