Tiger Woods Faces Expectations

Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The longer a player goes without winning, questions invariably arise about what's wrong. Davis Love III was in that position for 34 months, which is why he could only chuckle when the subject of Tiger Woods came up.

``I've gotten a lot of question in the last two years,'' said Love, who ended an 0-for-62 victory drought last week at Pebble Beach. ``He's gotten that many in the last two months.

``Unfortunately, he has to explain a lot.''

Such is the case when a player wins nine times on the PGA Tour and three straight majors; when four of those victories were effectively over after three rounds; when he doesn't go more than three weeks without winning.

Such are the expectations of Woods.

He comes to the Buick Invitational having not won on the PGA Tour in his last six events. A year ago, he arrived at Torrey Pines Golf Course having won six in a row.

What happened?

``What's happened is that he's still the best player in the world,'' Love said. ``We've all said that he's been on the greatest streak. We realize how incredible it's been because we've all been on both sides of it. Just not to that extent.''

The best explanation Woods offered Wednesday was the hair. He dyed it blond over the holidays and hasn't won since.

That's all of three tournaments.

``Maybe I need to dye it back'' to blond, said Woods, the person least concerned that it's February and he hasn't won.

Woods keeps his own record on how long it's been since he has won a tournament. That would be Dec. 10, when he teamed with David Duval to win the World Cup in Argentina.

And there were others.

``I guess the Grand Slam doesn't count,'' he said. That was the four-man, 36-hole tournament in Hawaii the week before Thanksgiving when Woods made eagle on the 18th hole to force a playoff with Vijay Singh, then another eagle on the first extra hole to win.

``I guess the European tour doesn't count,'' said Woods, referring to his three-stroke victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand.

``I haven't won in three tournaments,'' he said. ``That's not a slump, not like some of these people think it is. If I can go three tournaments and people call it a slump, then I've actually played some pretty good golf.''

Woods has himself to blame for that.

He raised the expectations with one of the greatest years ever in sports. Along with his nine victories and three straight majors, he never went more than three PGA Tour events without winning, and only three times finished lower than fifth.

``It's not like I'm missing cuts,'' Woods said. ``I'm right there. My worst finish has been 13th. That's terrible, isn't it?''

But the one thing Woods has failed to do in three tournaments his year is contend on Sunday. He was 6 strokes back and never a factor in the Mercedes Championships, and his tie for fifth in Phoenix left him 15 strokes behind, his largest deficit in two years.

And he made three straight bogeys on the front nine of Pebble Beach — the same nine that Love played in 8-under 28 — to wash out any thought of another comeback.

Woods admits that his game is not as sharp as it was last year, when just about every facet was nearly flawless.

``I feel like I'm driving the ball better than I did at this time last year,'' he said. ``My iron game is not as sharp. Obviously, I'm not making as many putts. My short game feels about the same. I have the same drive, the same anticipation of wanting to go out there and play well and put myself in contention and hopefully win. That hasn't changed.''

This would be an appropriate place to do that.

Woods has played the Buick Invitational three times and has never finished worse than a tie for third. He won in 1999 by going 62-65 on the weekend, and erased a 7-stroke deficit in seven holes before Phil Mickelson pulled away for a 4-stroke victory.

That ended the streak. Now he is asked whether he can end a ``slump.''

``The second you think he's slumping, then he wins by 15 that week,'' Brad Faxon said.

The last time he faced questions along this line was in 1998, when Woods won only once on tour while rebuilding his swing. ``I'm not that far off,'' he said repeatedly, and before long he rattled off 16 tour victories in his next 27 starts.

``It's close,'' he said. ``I haven't played terrible. I've played actually pretty good. It's just a matter of time.''