PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It was Monday morning and Hank Haney had to excuse himself. "You know what, he just pulled up and we¹re ready to get after it right now," Haney said as Tiger Woods arrived for work at Isleworth CC in Orlando. This was about 16 hours after the last putt had fallen to cinch Woods' 57th career PGA Tour victory and his third in six events this year.
The Players Championship could not get a more ringing endorsement as Woods goes for the second leg of a May doubleheader on a golf course that will demand more out of him than Quail Hollow, where 13-under took home the crystal. The ramped-up TPC-Sawgrass, with its $60 million clubhouse and new date, will get most of the early attention, but it's the golf course and what lies beneath it that will be the story by the weekend. With new greens and subsystem, the Players will play more like Royal Liverpool than the bog it had become after 25 years of organic buildup. Shots won't be plugging or backing up this week -- no "mudballs," as Tiger calls them. They'll be bounding and releasing into Pete Dye's many forms of trouble, so control of ball flight and direction will be more important than power. As Woods said Tuesday morning after a practice round on the renovated ballpark, "You have to hit the proper shot the proper distance."
I called Haney a day earlier to get educated on Tiger's latest conquest, and he made several enlightening points. No. 1, in Tiger's last 15 stroke-play tournaments, he has finished first or second 14 times. That didn't sound right, but we went back to last year's British Open, included a couple of second-place finishes in Asia, special events like the Target World Challenge and PGA Grand Slam, a runner-up at the Masters, and other than a T-22 at Bay Hill, Woods has indeed finished worse than second only once in his last 15 medal-play events. His lead over Jim Furyk in the World Rankings is more than Furyk's gap on the No. 1,000-ranked player in the world.
"I don't know what else a guy can do," Haney said.
Some may say that's an unbelievable stretch of golf for a guy who can't find a fairway with his driver, but Haney hears the criticism and says hold on.
There's nobody who bombs it 320 yards and straight on a consistent basis.
The power game is designed to hit wedge from the rough. It's new school -- Bomb 'n' Gouge -- and anybody who doesn't understand that is old school. But when he took out the 3-wood, Woods hit six of his last seven fairways coming in, including a 290-yard baby draw off a fairway bunker at the last. "I just think people should look at it from a different perspective," Haney said.
Tiger came to Charlotte, N.C., for the Wachovia Championship after a not-so-great ball-striking week at the Masters. Still, if he made the putts Zach Johnson made at 14 and 16, it would have been tied after 72 holes and Woods might be standing on three straight majors today. Instead, he put the clubs away for two weeks, thought about it, went to Oakmont to prepare for the U.S. Open, and put on an exhibition. Although he was playing great at Isleworth, shooting 62 on the Saturday before Wachovia, Woods did not like the way he was hitting the ball at Quail Hollow. Haney always spends the week before a major or big event with Woods anyway, so Wednesday through Sunday they wore out the range -- the same way they did last July at Cog Hill during the Western Open. That was the week when Tiger was coming back from a missed cut at the U.S. Open, and since then it's been rather ... redundant.
Some say they're growing tired of Tiger being dominant, that nobody makes a move on him, that he was vulnerable at Wachovia and everybody backed down.
They're missing the point. Woods is like the guy he played with at the Wachovia pro-am, Michael Jordan. He may miss a few jumpers, but rarely in the fourth quarter, and he doesn't lose many games that really matter.
As off-the-charts as he is winning tournaments at a Roger Federer-like pace, like every other golfer, Woods still struggles with his swing. While he made dramatic improvements throughout the course of the week in Charlotte, Woods admitted he "didn't have his best stuff." And even without his A game, he still won by two strokes with a final-round 69 while playing partner Rory Sabbatini and the next-to-last pairing of Vijay Singh and Arron Oberholser produced 74s.
"Well, this game, you have it for a little bit and it goes away, then you've got to get it back again," Woods said on Sunday. "One day you're hitting it too high, one day you're hitting it too low, drawing it too much, cutting it too much; there's always something. You've just always got to try to keep it in check, and that's why I was working out there, because this golf course is so penal that you just can't get away with bad swings."
So he may have won No. 57 with his putter, his wedge and his guts, but he still hit 70 percent of his greens in regulation, made 20 birdies and an eagle, and headed to Florida looking hard at No. 58. It's a different type of game this week but the same Tiger.
Asked on Tuesday if the week felt any different in terms of his anticipation of or focus on the event than it did when it was in March, Woods never blinked.
"Same," he said. "I come here to win."
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.