Year of the Tiger Golf: After a season of victories and tinkering, Tiger Woods is back where it all began paired with his father for the pro-am at Pebble Beach.

January 29, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- He won four tournaments and more than $2 million in prize money. He made history in winning the Masters by 12 shots, shattering both the tournament's scoring record and, more significantly, the social barriers surrounding Augusta National.

And then Tiger Woods did what other successful golfers have done before.

He tinkered with his game.

Woods might have been voted the PGA Tour's Player of the Year in 1997, but most of what he accomplished happened before the middle of July. A late-season slump that culminated with a poor performance in the Ryder Cup forced Woods to rethink his approach for this year.

He changed clubs after last year's Tour Championship in November. He has worked on flattening his trajectory, sacrificing some distance for accuracy. But perhaps the biggest change Woods made involved his putting.

"I went back to my old putting, the way I used to putt as a kid," Woods said here Tuesday. "Look at it. Hit it. That's it."

His decision came after a conversation Woods had with his father. Earl Woods told his millionaire son that he was listening to too many people, and getting away from the things that made him the most celebrated amateur since Bobby Jones.

Woods, who will play with his father in this week's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, has seen immediate results. He finished tied for second behind Phil Mickelson in the season-opening Mercedes Championships, then came from eight shots back to beat reigning U.S Open champion Ernie Els in a playoff at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand Sunday.

"My swing is better than it was last year," said Woods, who recently regained the No. 1 ranking in the world from Greg Norman. "Some of the things I have incorporated in my game are better than last year. It remains to be seen how I will do in competition."

Asked yesterday about the fact that Woods is tweaking his game, reigning PGA champion Davis Love III smiled. "It's comforting to know that he has the same problems as everyone else," said Love. "The older he gets, the more control he's going to get. He's going to get better and better."

In a tournament in which the celebrity amateurs often overshadow the pros, Woods and his father likely will be the featured pairing when play begins today. But it will be a little more low-key than last year, when he was teamed with movie star Kevin Costner.

The crowds so unnerved some of the other players that fans were banned this year from snapping pictures during the tournament. The only reason Woods returned was to have a chance to play with the man who taught him the game.

It will bring back memories of his childhood, when Earl Woods was a 1-handicap (he's now a 15) and the two won many father-son tournaments together. It will also stir the memory of the first time Tiger Woods beat his father.

"Having Dad here is definitely more meaningful," said Woods, 22. "There is no doubt about it, because last year what he went through having the heart surgery and all the complications that happened afterwards. To finally have him here is pretty special.

"I shot 71 when I was 11 and he shot 72. That was a pretty big day in my book. I wasn't very long when I was 11. He was a lot longer. I had to get around with my short game. There were days I couldn't get around and he would kick my butt."

There is some question as to whether the elder Woods, 64, will be able to make it around the three hilly and wet courses on the Monterey Peninsula. Woods and his father will start today at Poppy Hills, then play Spyglass Hill tomorrow and Pebble Beach Saturday.

"I think he is [ready]," said Tiger Woods. "He will be tired, no doubt about it. We all are tired when we walk these courses. It will be a challenge, but he'll make it around with no problem. He will be sore and tired at night like we all will be."

The other request Woods made was to play with defending champion Mark O'Meara. He would like to repeat last year's performance at Pebble Beach -- with a slightly different ending. With a final-round 64, Woods staged a remarkable comeback but wound up losing to O'Meara by one shot.

"It would be great if we had a chance to do the same thing we did last year," said Woods. "He knows and I know we have to go out there and play our best."

As for his relationship with O'Meara, a neighbor back in Florida and a mentor on the tour, Woods said, "We are great friends. He is like a big brother. It's nice to have someone you care about and a great friend you know with you out there."

O'Meara's relationship with Woods, as well as his experience at Pebble Beach, probably helped him withstand a charge that saw Woods birdie the last three holes, including reaching the green on the 540-yard 18th in two shots with a 3-wood.

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