Tiger Woods pulls out his driver on the fourth tee while playing a practice round on the North Course at Torrey Pines. He was practicing for the Buick Invitational Tuesday in San Diego.AP photo
SAN DIEGO — Three weeks into the PGA Tour season, Tiger Woods finally arrived with expectations larger than ever.
The difference this year is that he created them.
First came a comment toward the bottom of a story on his Web site earlier this month when he was asked about the possibility of winning the Grand Slam in a calendar year.
“I think it’s easily within reason,” he said.
Then came a five-week break over the holidays that was filled with hours spent on the range.
“It’s the first time he didn’t go skiing,” swing coach Hank Haney said Tuesday after watching his pupil play nine holes on the North Course at Torrey Pines, followed by a one-hour session on the back end of the practice range.
“He is really working hard,” Haney said. “Last year was tough on him, and then it turned around at the end. When your mind is not 100 percent there, it’s harder. But now you see the work ethic that he has always had, and the determination. He is 100 percent locked in to what he wants to do.”
Woods makes his 2008 debut Thursday at the Buick Invitational, where he is the three-time defending champion. Most would be surprised if he doesn’t make it four in a row.
Rust shouldn’t be a problem.
Woods took a 10-week break after the Tour Championship, then won his Target World Challenge by seven shots. But it wasn’t long after a few celebrations — Christmas, birthday parties for him (Dec. 30) and his wife (Jan. 1), that he was back to work.
“I felt like I made some improvements this winter,” Woods said Monday at his Tiger Woods Learning Center. “I solidified things I was working on toward the end of last year. At Target, I wasn’t quite there the last two days. I went back and looked at it, figured out a few things and was working on that. I’m excited to play again.
“I’m really excited about starting out the year, and then my preparations toward Augusta.”
Some don’t believe the golf season starts until Woods shows up, and there’re two things wrong with that thinking. One, it’s a disservice to Daniel Chopra, K.J. Choi and D.J. Trahan, winners of the first three PGA Tour events.
Besides, the golf season really doesn’t start until the Masters.
That would be the first leg of the Grand Slam, and everyone knows how Woods feels about that.
“I think it’s easily within reason.”
That comment spoke more to Woods’ confidence in his game than the odds of winning all four majors in a calendar year.
Take a sample of sound bites over the years on the Grand Slam, and Woods sounds like a politician constantly changing his position.
When he won the Masters in 1997 by 12 shots in his first major as a pro, and Woods was asked about winning the Grand Slam, he reasoned that Phil Mickelson had won four PGA Tour events the year before.
“If you win the right tournaments four times, then you have the slam,” he said, making it sound easy at age 21.
Four months later, after being an also-ran at the U.S. Open and British Open, he was asked again about the Grand Slam. Woods said it was tough to even get into contention at four majors in one year.
“Realistically, it’s almost next to impossible to win all four,” he said before the ’97 PGA Championship.
A decade later, there is proof it can happen.
Over 294 days that connected 2000 to 2001, Woods became the first player to hold all four major titles, from his 15-shot victory at the U.S. Open to his two-shot victory at the Masters.
And when he won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002, Woods wondered why there was such a fuss.
“It’s certainly doable, because I’ve done it before,” he said after winning the U.S. Open at Bethpage. “To win all four in a calendar year would just be different. Because at that one time, in my household, there was all four major championships right there. And no one else in the world had them but me.”
The starting line for a calendar slam is the Masters.
While he is a four-time champion, Woods has won only once in the last five years. That was in 2005, which featured the magical chip-in for birdie on the 16th and a playoff victory over Chris DiMarco. Inevitably, the question came up that day about when he starts thinking about the Grand Slam.
“I don’t know — when we go to IHOP or something,” he said.
Maturity has come to his game and his speech over the years, and that’s why it was mildly surprising to hear him speak so boldly about a calendar slam, something that has never been done at the professional level.
Reminded of his various comments about the Grand Slam on Monday, Woods shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ve gotten better as a player,” he said. “The last four, five, six years, I been in contention in more majors than when I first started out. Put that into more chances, and probably over the last two or three years, I’ve given myself a chance in just about every major. And that’s the whole idea.”
In his last 12 majors, since confidence caught up to his swing changes, Woods has finished out of the top four only twice. He missed the cut at Winged Foot in the ’06 U.S. Open in his first tournament since his father died, and he tied for 12th at the British Open last year.
“That’s what I’ve been the most proud of over the last couple of years,” he said. “I’ve really given myself a chance, sometimes only after two or three days, but I’m in the mix. Sometimes I’m on the periphery of contention, like the British last year, where you need to make a couple of putts to change things, and I just didn’t do it.
“But if that’s the worst I can do, that’s not too bad.”