July 29, 2009 in Sports

Woods gears up for final major

Doug Ferguson Associated Press
 

Barring any scheduling surprises, Tiger Woods is about to try something new.

He had played three weeks in a row on the PGA Tour in every season since he was a rookie – including a career-high five straight weeks in early 1999 – until last year, when two knee surgeries crimped his schedule.

That third consecutive tournament, however, has never been a major.

This year looks like it will be different. Woods decided to play this week at the Buick Open, where he is a two-time winner and has never finished worse than 11th in eight previous starts at Warwick Hills.

Next week is the Bridgestone Invitational, and while Woods has yet to make that official, he has never missed a World Golf Championship in America when he wasn’t on crutches. Besides, he is a six-time winner at Firestone, one of his favorite golf courses.

Then it’s off to Hazeltine for the PGA Championship, his last shot at winning a major this year.

That he chose to play the Buick Open was only a mild surprise. Woods likes the golf course, and although he ended a decade-old endorsement contract one year early because of the economy, there remains a sense of loyalty to his longtime relationship with Buick.

“We’ve had a great relationship with Tiger for nine years, and this is his way of showing that,” said Larry Peck, Buick-GMC’s national promotions manager. “He provides such a lift.”

Woods didn’t offer much insight on his Web site, saying only that he was looking forward to the Buick Open and “the golf course suits my eye,” a loose translation for “I see myself winning.”

What his appearance at Warwick Hills should not suggest is any sense of panic.

Woods has not played more than two weeks in a row since returning from reconstructive knee surgery. Even though he is leading the PGA Tour money list by more than $500,000 and his three victories are more than anyone else, he has played only 10 times this year.

Some have suggested he needs to play more.

Then there was his last tournament, nothing short of a disaster. Woods played a six-hole stretch at Turnberry in 7 over par and wound up missing the cut in the British Open by one shot, only his second missed cut in a major and his first weekend off in three years.

Swing coach Hank Haney worked with him last week in Florida, then offered a self-deprecating assessment as he headed to the airport.

“He’s doing really good,” Haney said. “He had a bad tournament, and I’m getting fired.”

He has been working with Woods for more than five years and knows what kind of scrutiny to expect. He was on the range at Augusta National when Woods vented about how poorly he was hitting the ball, and speculation soon shifted to Haney being shown the door.

Haney looks more at the big picture.

Woods hit the ball great at the Memorial, then finally got some putts to fall on the final day to shoot 65 and win. He hit it just as well at Bethpage Black and never got anything to drop at the U.S. Open. He continued to play well at Congressional, where Woods won a duel with Anthony Kim to capture the AT&T National.

Turnberry was a surprise, nothing more.

“There wasn’t cause for that much alarm,” Haney said. “He’s played so well, it was a little easier to brush off.”

Even so, there is a sense of urgency this time of the year.

Woods rarely plays the week before a major, but there has always been an exception or two for the PGA Championship. He has played five times the week before the PGA Championship, and in 2007 won at Firestone by eight shots before winning the PGA at Southern Hills.

He has played at least three straight weeks 21 times in his career, and twice won all three events (Disney, Tour Championship and American Express at the end of 1999; and the PGA Championship, Firestone and Deutsche Bank in 2006).

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