Woods likes his lie in shot for third Masters in row

In groove, champ brings stronger game to Augusta

The Masters

April 09, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - In pursuit of perfection, Tiger Woods is often his biggest critic. After he won his first Masters here at Augusta National six years ago, becoming at 21 the youngest major champion, Woods revamped his entire swing. He remains the ultimate range rat, hitting shots until they are landing within a few feet of his target.

The target this week is clear - becoming the first player in history to win three straight Masters. And here's a scary thought for the rest of the field: At 27, Woods believes he is playing better than he did during a 10-month stretch between 2000 and 2001 when he won all four majors in succession.

Having recovered from offseason knee surgery, having found a comfort level with a new driver that is producing more consistent results than last year, Woods comes into the 67th Masters with three victories in five events this year and in a similar position to one he occupies each week he plays.

"I guess I'm still the favorite," he said yesterday, smiling.

Given the state of his game and the condition of the course - rain-drenched fairways and receptive greens - Woods might be a bigger favorite than he's been here before. He has regained his strength and the weight he lost during a recent bout with food poisoning, which occurred the night before he finished off an 11-shot win at Bay Hill.

Asked if his mind-set is different than it was the past two years coming into the season's first major, Woods said, "No. You just go out there and plod your way along. Just because I feel comfortable about my game doesn't guarantee that I'm going to play well. I've still got to go out there and be focused on executing shots in the proper place."

Woods knows that the sport's history is against him making more of his own this week. No player has won the same major three straight years since Australia's Peter Thomson at the British Open (1954-56). Jack Nicklaus, the first player to win two straight Masters (in 1965 and 1966), failed to make the cut in his next try. Great Britain's Nick Faldo won in 1989 and 1990, but finished back in the pack in 1991.

Woods also knows his own history that includes eight major professional championships among his 37 PGA Tour victories. His win at Bay Hill was his fourth straight there, making him the first player since the legendary Gene Sarazen in 1930 to accomplish that feat.

"I've been able to do certain things in golf that no one's ever done before," said Woods, whose only attempt at winning three consecutive majors as a pro ended when he tied for 29th at the 2001 PGA Championship. "And, if you're ever in that position, you want to take advantage of it because it doesn't happen all the time."

Unlike many players here, Woods doesn't mind a forecast that includes rainy, cold weather right through tomorrow's opening round. A course that has been lengthened and toughened in recent years in order to reduce his domination will play longer and more difficult than it has the past two years.

"I do like playing in tough conditions," said Woods. "It doesn't mean you always play well, but I enjoy that challenge. I don't get bummed out when the conditions are tough, put it that way. You've got to go out there and suck it up and play the best you can and sometimes they're brutal and you've got to deal with them."

Those who have played this year with Woods agree with his assessment that he's playing as well, if not better, than he did when he won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in 2000 and the 2001 Masters. The margin of victory at Bay Hill was reminiscent of his 15-stroke win at Pebble Beach and his eight-shot win at St. Andrews.

"I played with him for two rounds [the final round at the Buick and at Bay Hill] and I didn't see one bad shot," tour veteran Brad Faxon said. "It was very impressive."

If anything, Woods seems to be more relaxed than he was coming here in 2001, when all the talk was about whether what he was about to accomplish could be considered a Grand Slam. His game is certainly in better shape than it was coming here last year, when he had won only once before the Masters.

"When I've competed, even when I was a little boy, I've always been one who was very intense when I played," Woods said. "My biggest thing as a kid was to learn how to relax on the golf course. I used to get too into it. You can't be focused for five straight hours. You can't do it. I've learned to break it up. I've always had that ability."

A year ago, Woods was tied with Retief Goosen going into the final round, gave himself some breathing room with a couple of early birdies and cruised to a three-shot win. Two years ago, he went down to the last couple of holes before beating David Duval by two strokes and Phil Mickelson by three. In 1995, he won by a record 12 strokes.

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