ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Four years ago, Tiger Woods came to the PGA Championship at Medinah outside Chicago in the midst of a major championship drought. He had been supplanted by David Duval as the world's top-ranked player. There were even questions as to whether Woods would regain the PGA Tour Player of the Year award that Duval had won the previous year.
Woods answered those questions with a one-shot victory. The debate about who was the PGA Tour's top player was as short-lived as Gigli.
This week, Woods comes into the 85th PGA Championship here at Oak Hill faced with a similar conundrum. He hasn't won a major since last year's U.S. Open, and while his world ranking is secure for another decade or so, the sub-plot this week surrounds the list of contenders challenging to end Woods' run of four straight Player of the Year titles.
"I think overall this entire year has been very consistent," said Woods. "I really haven't got going with anything. It's hard to say that it's been a bad year when I've won four times. Everyone's been on me when I've won four times."
But Davis Love has also won four, most recently at The International on Sunday. Jim Furyk has won three tournaments, including the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, as has sentimental favorite Kenny Perry. And Mike Weir has won twice, including the Masters.
"I think five guys have a chance, four or five guys [for Player of the Year]," said Woods. "Obviously, this is a big week."
Woods might not even be the favorite this week, given his bouts of inconsistency with both the driver and putter, two essentials on a tight, long, tree-lined course that has its share of majors (1956, 1968, 1989 U.S. Opens, 1980 PGA) and major events (1995 Ryder Cup).
It might be why Perry, who leads the tour in total driving (combining accuracy and distance) and has turned his game around this year with his putting, could have a chance to redeem himself for his playoff defeat to Mark Brooks in the 1996 PGA at Valhalla.
It might be why Furyk, who has probably been the most steady of those in contention for Player of the Year, could back up his first major championship in June with a second, all but locking up the trophy Woods has dominated since he turned pro in 1996.
It might be why Love, whose career has been revived this year despite the suicide death of his brother-in-law and business partner in May, could win his second major championship five years after winning his first in the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot.
"It's not a driving force for my year," said Furyk, 33, who has moved all the way to No. 5 in the world and has a Tour-high 13 top 10 finishes. "It's not changing my schedule anymore. I'm not playing any more events. I'm not targeting that as the goal. It would be nice, but that comes from playing well and winning golf tournaments, that's really the driving force."
Furyk quickly admitted, "That's kind of the icing on the cake and it would be something I would remember for a long time, but again, I'm not going to judge my year upon that."
Consider what has happened to Duval - his victory in the 2001 British Open is looking more and more like a fluke - after knocking Woods off his throne as the PGA Tour's Player of the Year. It's not a guarantee for future success.
Perry, 43, would not only be the oldest winner in the award's 23-year history, but also the most unlikely.
"That would be unbelievable for me," he said in a teleconference last week. "But for me to [win the award], I've got to win the PGA Championship or I've got to win two more tournaments."
That it is voted on by the players might give Perry, a journeyman known more for his golf shirts than any particular facet of his game, a better chance to win the award. It might simply come down to who leads the money list, a category in which Love finds himself marginally ahead of Woods going into this week.
Most of the focus will be on Woods before play begins tomorrow. Woods is going to be in a threesome with defending champion Rich Beem, who beat Woods by a shot in last year's PGA Championship at Hazeltine, as well as 2001 champion David Toms.
The major championship slump - five straight, his longest since going 10 in a row without a victory after winning the 1997 Masters - has some speculating whether Woods will ever reach or surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major victories. Woods has eight.
"If I look at the past majors this year, I really haven't got any positive momentum going for a sustained period of time," said Woods, who finished tied for fourth in last month's British Open after coming in 15th at the Masters and tied for 20th at the U.S. Open.
"When I won those majors, my previous eight majors, I've really played well, and I played well for the entire week from the get-go. But that's what you've got to do in major championships. You can't slap it around and play poorly. You have to play well and be hitting all cylinders."
And you can't come in faced with a conundrum.
At a glance
What:85th PGA Championship
When:Tomorrow to Sunday
Where:Oak Hill Country Club (East course), Rochester, N.Y.
TV:Tomorrow and Friday, TNT at 1 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, TNT at 11 a.m., CBS at 2 p.m.