-- Eight years have passed since Tiger Woods came to Wisconsin and launched his professional career at age 20, shooting 12 under par at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open and finishing in a tie for 60th place, good for a $2,544 check. Now, 50 miles north of that city, and more than $43 million in PGA Tour prize money later, he would like to believe he can re-launch his quest to win more major championships than any player in history this week at Whistling Straits in the 86th PGA Championship.
Woods has been stalled at eight victories in majors since prevailing in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island and has gone nine straight without adding another as he continues to point toward Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 professional major victories. Woods knows his boyhood idol once went 12 in a row from 1967 to 1970 without winning one of golf's four most important events after taking six majors in his first six years as a pro.
"You've just got to keep grinding and keep working at it and give yourself a lot of opportunities," Woods said here Tuesday. "I think that's what Jack was able to do better than any other player in the history of our game. He gave himself a lot of chances. I've given myself some chances and just haven't won. It's a matter of keeping yourself up there."
By his own lofty standards, Woods is not having a particularly stellar season, even if he remains the No. 1 player in the world for a record-tying 331st straight week, equaling Greg Norman's previous mark. He also can be dislodged from that perch Sunday if No. 2 Ernie Els prevails here. Els has been in contention in every major this year, losing by a shot to Phil Mickelson at the Masters and by the same margin in a four-hole playoff last month to Todd Hamilton at the British Open.
Woods, whose only victory this season came at the World Match Play event at La Costa, likely will have to prevail this week and win another tournament or two to have a chance at being named PGA Tour player of the year for a sixth straight year. Mickelson, Els and four-time winner and leading money earner Vijay Singh and are all in prime position to end that run.
Still, judging from his play, Woods seems capable of starting a surge this week on a wind-blown course that measures a major championship record 7,514 yards. Two weeks ago at the Buick Open, his ball-striking and putting helped him to a 21-under 267, good for third place.
Woods has chafed at times this year over the constant scrutiny of his game -- his swing, his caddie, his two-year split from longtime coach Butch Harmon and even his personal life, including his September engagement to Elin Nordegren. But Tuesday, he seemed very much at ease, and more genuinely enthusiastic about the state of his game than he has been all season. He also was in somewhat of a reflective mood, as well, especially when asked about his state of mind during his four straight major wins between 2000 and '01, part of a remarkable run of seven wins in 11 majors overall.
"Hey, I got into a great rhythm," he said, "and you ask any player out here, there's no substitute for confidence, and I was feeling very confident at the time. I was sitting up there and hitting shots, making a bunch of putts. That was probably the best stretch I've ever had in my life as far as putting. You look at the way I putted Pebble Beach [in winning the 2000 U.S. Open] and I didn't miss one inside 10 feet. The British Open [at St. Andrews] was about the same. That's a nice problem to have when you go through a stretch like that."
Woods also admitted that there are definitely some parallels between his 2004 season of occasional swing struggles and 1998, when he also went winless in the majors while he was working on significant swing changes that ultimately led to that breathtaking blitz over the next three years.
"This feels very similar to that period I went through in '98," he said. "Things are starting to come together, and it's very exciting, just like it was back in '98 and '99. . . . I knew this was the direction I wanted to go in order to get better, and I'm very excited about the prospects of that happening."
Woods also said he could empathize with Els, who also came into the media center Tuesday and talked about having a difficult time getting over his loss to Hamilton in the playoff at Royal Troon. One wayward swing on the third extra hole led to a bogey that cost the South African his fourth major championship.
"You just have to keep playing," Woods said. "You just play. Every one of us has moments where we have doubts, and we've got to overcome them. That's part of the game, that's part of playing sports. Everybody goes through that. It's a matter of just getting up there and believing in your abilities. If you put in the work and you know what you can do, it's just a matter of going out there and executing it properly.
"I feel like I probably should have won the last two British Open championships. I was right there with a chance at Royal St. George [in 2003, when he tied for fourth]. I bogeyed two of the last four holes and missed a playoff by two with a lost ball on the first day. Then [at Troon last month], I thought I was playing well enough and made one birdie in 36 holes on the back nine. But I was playing well. Whether I hit bad shots or missed a lot of putts, I felt like I should have been there in the last couple of holes to win the tournament.
"If I had not given myself a chance through those major championships and I had not felt like I should have won, I'd be bothered a lot more than I am. . . . If I had not gone through stretches like that, where I was playing that well, it would be more frustrating."