Woods could be setting up a season for the ages

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods has been here before. Coming off a hard-fought, tense, knee-knocking victory in a major championship. Being pushed to the limit by a gritty, if not as heralded, competitor. Prevailing, in some ways, despite himself.

Sunday's Masters victory over Chris DiMarco was eerily similar to the 1999 PGA Championship, where Woods looked in control for most of the final round but had a pesky teen named Sergio Garcia making life difficult.

DiMarco, 36, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, made the process even tougher in the final round at Augusta National, sending the tournament into a sudden-death playoff, where Woods finally prevailed after making birdie on the first playoff hole.

After the victory at Medinah in '99, Woods went on a tear. He won six of the next 10 major championships. He won 17 PGA Tour events in two years. He looked like he'd chase down Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles in no time.

Instead, after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, he didn't win another major until Sunday.

Looks like -- despite some shaky swings on the final two pressure-packed holes in regulation -- the changes Woods has made under the supervision of instructor Hank Haney are paying off. After all, a major victory is a major victory.

"Well, any time you make changes in your game, it's not going to be an immediate success," Woods said. "Did I probably take a step back? Yeah, probably did in '98, too, end of '97, all of '98 and the beginning of '99, almost two years where I didn't really do anything in the game of golf.

"Then again, once those changes kicked in, I had a pretty good run, won 17 times on tour," he said.

We might be headed for that kind of streak again.

Woods has maintained for the better part of a year that the changes he was making to his game were important for his future. It was obvious that he was not comfortable for much of that time, winning just once on the PGA Tour last year.

But toward the end of the season, Woods saw it come around. He won a tournament in Japan and his own Target World Challenge. They were unofficial titles, but they meant something to Woods. They meant the work was paying off.

Then he opened the season with a tie for third at the Mercedes, a victory at the Buick Invitational and later a heart-stopping win over Phil Mickelson at Doral. Although he fell off in recent weeks, the feeling was that Woods was gearing up for Augusta.

And did he ever.

After an indifferent 74 to start the tournament -- this is the first time Woods has won any stroke-play event after shooting over par in the first round -- he roared back with a 66-65 middle of the tournament that included seven straight birdies in the third round. At one point, Woods was 9-under for the third round and bearing down on the Augusta National course record.

Two consecutive bogeys ended those thoughts, but Woods still finished the third round with a three-stroke advantage heading into the final round.

It was a cushion that turned out to be necessary.

The rout that was expected did not materialize. Woods had trouble putting DiMarco away, which might be a testament to DiMarco's resolve more than Woods' deficiencies.

Yes, he needed a miracle chip shot on the 16th hole, but Woods never trailed during the final round and was only tied at the 18th green. Then he took care of business in the playoff, drilling two shots to set up the winning birdie.

Now what?

Talk will soon switch to multiple major championships and the possibility of a Grand Slam. Woods tied for third at Pinehurst in 1999, where the U.S. Open is this year. He won at St. Andrews in 2000, where the British Open is this year. He will be a huge favorite at both places.

But he'll need some time to recuperate first after a mind-numbing Sunday at Augusta.

"This is a thrill, this is why you compete and why you practice all those hours," he said. "You log in all the time to put yourself in that position and see what you've got.''

Woods had plenty. Or was it just enough?

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.