Thursday, February 21, 2002

Slump Alert

Peter O'Malley made short work of Tiger Woods yesterday at the Accenture Match Play Championship. David Duval and Phil Mickelson also went down in the first round, proving yet again that anything can happen in match play competition. To read the local press here in New York, you'd think that O'Malley was some second-rate club pro from Loserville. In fact, as anyone who watches the Golf Channel knows, he plays the game from tee-to-green as well as anyone on tour. He just struggles with the six-footers. As do most touring professionals.

Woods's trunk-slam will undoubtedly give rise to chatter that he is "in a slump." Last year, he had to put the "slump" chatter away twice; once by winning the Masters with a brilliant Sunday performance and once by defeating Jim Furyk in sudden death at what used to be called The Firestone. This year, the golfing press has been itching to write a "Woods slump" storyline, but have held back, one presumes, because of what happened last year.

So is Tiger "slumping?" It's an important question for the three networks that cover golf. ABC's coverage of the Accenture Championship this weekend will probably garner half the rating it would if Woods were in the semi-final and final rounds. Tournaments without Tiger barely register in Mr. Nielsen's box. Tournaments with Tiger do better. Tournaments with Tiger in the lead or near the top of the leaderboard can sometimes break into Mr. Nielsen's double-digits. A ton of money rides on Tiger performing at the highest level.

The answer to the "slump" question is emphatically "no." Like all great golf professionals, Woods focuses on the four "major" tournaments -- The Masters, The US Open, The Open Championship and The PGA -- and schedules everything else, including his instructional training, around those dates. Right now, Woods looks like he's about a month away from being ready for the Masters, which is seven weeks away. He's clearly working on driving the ball straighter, distance control and putting. If he's not in the hunt at any of the four majors this year, then the answer to the "slump" question (at the end of the season) will be "yes." But until then, he's just tuning up for Augusta.