<
>

Tiger's '04 season a major disappointment

You could have earned a tidy sum at the beginning of the year betting that Tiger Woods would hold a 54-hole lead just once during the 2004 season.

And that he would not convert.

That's not all ...

How about wagering that he would win just one time?

Or that he wouldn't win a stroke-play tournament?

Or that he wouldn't rank in the top three on the money list?

All of that came true Sunday with Retief Goosen's victory at the Tour Championship, making him the last man of a second foursome to notch more victories on the PGA Tour than Woods.

It's been four years since Woods held a third-round lead and failed to finish the job. It happened at the very same East Lake course in Atlanta, where Phil Mickelson came from behind to beat him at the Tour Championship.

Nobody gave it much notice back in 2000. It was quirk, a fluke, at the end of one of the best years in golf history. Woods won nine times in 2000, including three major championships and a World Golf Championship event. He won the Masters the following year to complete the Tiger Slam. Nobody was going to quibble with one blown third-round lead -- the only one since the very first time he had one in 1996.

But heading into Sunday, winning after holding a third-round lead was a source of pride for Woods. He had won 30 of 32 times, including all eight of his major championships. He had also converted 11 straight times. His reputation was built on such front-running and in the past it often made his adversaries wilt.

Instead, Woods capped a disappointing season by proving there is still work to be done.

Not that it should be any surprise.

After a month-long break that included his wedding and honeymoon, Woods did not figure to come back in top form. The surprise should have been that he even put together rounds of 64-65 in the middle of the tournament to give him a shot at victory.

There were clues, however, that Woods was not ready to perform up to his dominant standards.

He was still missing an alarming amount of fairways and was ranked last in the field in driving accuracy heading into Sunday. His lead was a testament to his awesome recovery skills.

Woods tried to talk a good game, saying, "I've made steady progress throughout the entire end of the year. If you go back and look at my finishes, they haven't been all that bad. It's pretty nice to be able to continue that trend."

But when it was over Sunday, Woods admitted he was extremely disappointed. Yes, he fell to a great round by Goosen, who shot 64 to win by four, but Woods shot 72. A 2-under 68 would have put the pressure on the reigning U.S. Open champ, would have at least forged a tie. Obviously, those changes that Tiger's been working on all year have yet to take hold.

Of course, a little perspective is in order. Any other player, even a Mickelson or Ernie Els, would not be criticized for posting one victory, two seconds and three thirds. In all, Woods had 10 top-five finishes and 15 top 10s in 19 events. He has now gone nearly seven straight years without missing a cut.

But Woods being Woods, it is kind to say this season was simply "disappointing." In 1998, when Woods won just once and was also working through swing changes, there was far less heat on him. Nobody knew exactly what kind of greatness was in store. He had come out fast as a pro in 1996 and 1997, captured his first major at the Masters and then went into a lull.

However, for a guy who has 40 victories and turned non-golf fans onto the sport, to fall off so noticeably is a concern. He was passed by Vijay Singh and Els in the World Ranking. He barely challenged in any of the major championships. He was out of contention for the money title and player of the year race with six weeks to go in the season.

Woods, who turns 29 next month, still has four events to go in 2004 -- one each in Korea and Japan, the Skins Game and his own Target World Challenge next month. That's a lot of chances to get the competitive juices flowing and more opportunities to test his swing adjustments under fire.

Still, it was odd, seeing Woods hole out on the final green at East Lake, the final putt of the final event of the 2004 season.

At the beginning of the year, you could have made a lot of money betting that putt would have been so meaningless.

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.