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A Hiccup and Nothing More

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He still had a shot.

It was a next-to-impossible shot — 3-iron over a lake to a back-right pin, 239 yards from tee to green — but who was prepared to say Tiger Woods couldn't hole it?

Not Mike Tirico, who was calling the Tour Championship on ABC. Nor golfer-turned-analyst Curtis Strange, who sat mesmerized next to Tirico in the broadcast tower behind the 18th. Fortunately, there was nothing left to analyze.

Either Woods makes the hole-in-one, or he doesn't. Either he forces a playoff against Phil Mickelson, or he doesn't.

Woods' cap is pulled low and his shirt is that familiar winning Sunday shade of red. He swings, the ball takes off and on-course announcer Judy Rankin takes over wondering whether it might actually go in. It ... it ...

It wasn't close — by Woods' standards. The ball stopped 30 feet away.

``That's the way it goes when you don't have your best stuff,'' he said afterward. ``I grinded my butt off just to give myself a chance.''

For the second consecutive Sunday, Woods went off in the final pairing of a tournament and didn't win, and suddenly there is a crisis in confidence: ours.

Last Sunday, Woods shot 69 and Duffy Waldorf came out of nowhere with a closing 62 to steal the Disney Classic. This time, he shot 69 and Mickelson, playing a group ahead, shot 66 to win. The last time Woods had at least a share of the lead and failed to win was four years ago. Yet he seemed less surprised than anyone to see the streak end.

``I've had a lot of good things go my way,'' Woods said. ``I've been able to make key shots at the right times, and it has added into victories. Sometimes, I have played poorly coming down the stretch and have somehow snuck out a win.''

Asked what this said about his competition, Woods didn't blink. ``They're playing better than I am.''

Good enough, anyway, that Mickelson dared to tug on Superman's cape.

``I didn't really expect him to win,'' Mickelson said. ``I thought I had a pretty good chance.''

Of course, he could afford to be bold. Mickelson isn't going to next week's stop, the World Golf Championship in Valderrama, Spain. The rest of the field should be so lucky.

Everybody in golf has been talking about beating Woods, but it had to happen for the rest of us to realize how rare that is. He's played 19 tournaments this year and won nine. Over the last two years, only three guys have even won more than one tournament in which Woods was entered — Mickelson, David Duval and Rocco Mediate. He's beaten Ernie Els, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, five times in the last 53 weeks.

The scary thing is that this might be as beatable as Woods gets. He was on autopilot from the U.S. Open through the Canadian Open, but he's been scratchy since. Woods doesn't have his A-game, hasn't had it since last month's President's Cup, and doesn't appear to be in a hurry to get it back.

When Rankin caught up with him after Sunday's round, she asked Woods how much work he planned this week to iron out the flaws that have crept into his game. He just smiled.

``I'm doing nothing, absolutely nothing,'' Woods said. ``I'm going to relax.''

It probably won't make much of a difference. Woods has all the incentive he needs to win next week. Besides defending a title, he can become golf's first $10 million man and join greats Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead as the only players to win at least 10 times on tour in one season.

More important, by winning, Woods can once again do what another of the game's greats, Jack Nicklaus, did in dominating his competition. He can remind every other golfer out there that nothing short of a career week is going to beat him.

The fields Woods faces these days are deeper than in Nicklaus' era, even though the Golden Bear faced more golfers who found their way into the Hall of Fame — Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.

But something Tom Weiskopf once said about Nicklaus is true of Woods today: ``He knows he's going to beat you, you know he's going to beat you, and he knows you know he's going to beat you.''

That didn't happen the last two times out, but nobody should read too much into that. Woods shot in the 60s for all four rounds of both the Disney and Tour Championship. The last time he was on the wrong side of par was the first week of May.

So he won't hole every shot he needs to win every tournament every week. But it's a measure of how much the kid has spoiled us all that like the announcers Sunday on TV, we'll wait until the very last moment to be sure.

———

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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