2006: Woods’ ’06- scary good

In most ways, Tiger Woods’ 2006 season wasn’t quite as good as his spectacular 2000, when he won three major championships, set or tied 27 PGA Tour records, and had probably the best year in the modern era while expanding our imagination about what can be achieved in golf.

About all Woods didn’t do during that dawning of the new millennium was carry his own bag, tend his own pins and, come to think of other caddie tasks, throw a camera.

Allowing comparison to diminish the brilliance of his ’06, though, would be unjust, particularly considering that his achievements were interrupted by the heaviest kind of heart. He spent more than half of his season anticipating and mourning the May death of his father, Earl.

Yet he would push through the pain and accomplish something no professional golfer has since Byron Nelson in 1945: Win more than half his starts over a full schedule on the PGA Tour.

Nelson won 18 of 30 starts (60 percent) against competition weakened by World War II. Woods won eight of 15 (53.3 percent) against much stronger fields and heavier scrutiny. The only other to bat .500 was Ben Hogan, going 10 for 20 in 1948, though the Hawk gets more attention for his remarkable 5 of 6 in 1953 because he won the three majors he entered.

If Woods’ 2000 was about the spectacular, such as winning majors by Secretariat-type distances, his 2006 was about efficiency. If his ’00 was about seemingly never missing a key putt in a major, his ’06 was about precise iron play, most apparent at a British Open where he used his driver only once and, in a modern golf rarity, wore out his long irons. If his ’00 was marked by the continuation of a six-start winning streak early in the year, his ’06 was highlighted by his winning six consecutive Tour starts to conclude the year.

If his ’00 was about those three major victories en route to four in a row, then his ’06 is about that 53.3 percent and two majors on the way to who-knows-what.

“He likes that 53 percent number,” said Hank Haney, his coach.

There’s some interesting Nelson-Woods energy floating around, for Woods won his sixth consecutive this fall the same week Nelson died at age 94. Their connection will continue at least into early 2007. Woods’ run not only punctuated this season, it ramped up interest for the new year. Granted, he has lost overseas in between Tour victories, but that shouldn’t tarnish his second such remarkable Tour streak. So for now, particularly in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the Nelson 11 Watch is on.

We just might be in the midst of a wild ride here, even by Woods’ standards, because he’s in somewhat of a groove. And he’s there at an age elite professional golfers tend to hit their prime. Armed with a dozen major trophies, he turns 31 this month.

Another Tiger Slam is in play, too. Woods has won four of the last eight majors, including the last two. Putting has kept him from making it seven of eight. Woods finished two shots off the lead at the 2005 U.S. Open and PGA despite three-putting five times in each. That kept him from a calendar-year Grand Slam. And he was three off the pace at this year’s Masters despite three-putting seven times.

Woods ranked 116th on Tour in three-putt avoidance this year. That’s brow-raising because he led in hitting the ball closest to the hole, on average 31 feet, 7 inches. In theory, you’d think the guy hitting the closest approach shots would be among the best in not three-putting. But there he was entering the Buick Open, 191st in the stat, three-putting more than all but a half-dozen Tour players.

The bad news for Woods’ competitors is that he improved his putting the second half of the season. His swing tuned after significant changes, he started focusing more on his stroke. The key to his current winning streak is that he stopped three-jacking, stopped wasting shots on the greens. Counting the last round of the British Open and his last five victories, Woods three-putted only a couple of times, according to Haney’s count.

“I’m most proud of the fact he keeps improving,” said Haney. “In my mind he got a lot better this year. Improvement is the theme Tiger and I stay focused on. If you keep improving, good things will happen. It’s always a process. It never ends. He’s just in the middle of a process, and that process is getting better.”

There’s your frightening headline. Put it in large type: Woods Improving.

Not only that, he’s rising at the same time the rest of the one-time Big Five has cooled off. Woods won more than twice as much as Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen combined on the 2006 Tour. That’s an 8-3 tally that would seem to render any Big Five labeling outdated. Woods also won more official money than any two of the others combined.

After growing pains, he has become increasingly comfortable with the system Haney has taught him during the last three years.

He not only led in greens in regulation and approach proximity, he holed out 11 times from off the green on Tour this year, compared with once last year, that improbable chip-in at No. 16 on Masters Sunday. That points to improved iron play in the sense that his misses are better.

“I don’t think the streak is the thing that (excites) him,” Haney said. “It’s about feeling he’s getting better. That allows you to win six tournaments in a row. It’s about focusing on the process of trying to improve. He has that burning desire. I see that in everything he does. It’s not just golf.”

So Woods appears equipped for more greatness. At this point, who or what can stop him? Besides, of course, prolonged amnesia.

“You would think so,” Haney said of the likelihood of continued excellence. “Unless all of a sudden he forgets how to swing.”

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