Woods criticized for winning without his 'A' game

Once again, Tiger Woods is the victim of his own success.

It is not enough for him to simply win, he must do so convincingly. A playoff victory with some shaky swings down the stretch somehow leaves questions. A ninth major title is considered routine unless it is accomplished like other more dominant performances.

The fact that there could be even a hint of doubt in the aftermath of Woods' historic fourth Masters triumph on Sunday at Augusta National again points to the incredible, mind-numbing standard Woods has set.

If he doesn't win by 12 shots, as he did in his first Masters victory in 1997 – or by 15 as he did at the 2000 U.S. Open, or by eight as he did at the 2000 British Open – there must be something wrong.

No other player endures that kind of scrutiny.

When Ernie Els won the British in 2002, nobody held it against him that he probably should have taken care of business in regulation. They lauded him for regrouping in a four-hole playoff when he could have let it slip away.

When Phil Mickelson won The Masters in 2004, birdieing five of the last seven holes, nobody took him to task for making it so hard on himself, playing an indifferent first six holes that could have cost him the tournament.

When Vijay Singh won the PGA Championship last year in a playoff, nobody hammered him for playing the final 18 holes in regulation without a birdie.

On Sunday at Augusta National, there seemed to be an expectation that Woods should win by 10 strokes. Anything less suggests weakness ... or so it seems.

Perhaps if CBS had been able to show more of Woods' middle two rounds, a different picture would have emerged. Woods played them in 66-65. He birdied 16 out of 30 holes at one point. He tied a Masters record with seven consecutive birdies. He was on pace to set an Augusta National record before stumbling with a couple of bogeys.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, after taking a four-shot lead over Chris DiMarco, Woods appeared to play not to lose rather than to win. So what?

Maybe his swing wasn't holding up as well as he would have liked. Perhaps he was guarding against a big mistake, waiting for his opponent to make one, as has happened countless other times. And, remember, he was never tied all day until he made a bogey at the 18th hole. Then he bounced right back to birdie the hole and win.

"I think he is getting there," Woods' swing coach, Hank Haney, told reporters afterward. "I don't think the golf swing is something you just get and have. You keep working at it and you keep trying and you keep getting closer and closer and closer."

For more than a year, Woods has been working with Haney to get it right. There have been plenty of setbacks along the way, proving again that golf is a game almost never mastered.

The truth is, even without his best stuff, Woods prevailed. That, in itself, is impressive, given the immense heat of a major championship and that provided by DiMarco, who just would not go away.

"I don't think you are ever there. You never arrive, but if you do, you might as well quit because you're already there." Woods said. "You can't get any better. As a player, you should never have that moment."

Woods now has four Masters, more than any other player except Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He is halfway to Nicklaus' record 18 major titles, having matched Ben Hogan and Gary Player at nine and just two behind Walter Hagen.

Perhaps another run is coming. Who would be surprised to see Woods rattle off a bunch more victories? Then again, we shouldn't expect it to come so easily.

Five Things To Bank On
1. This is a relaxed week for everyone in the field. After the pressure cooker of The Masters, or the weather-related problems that were present at the BellSouth and the Players, thhe MCI Heritage Classic will seem like a breeze.

2. An MCI trend will continue as the winner of The Masters won't prevail. Tiger Woods is not playing. The last player to pull off the double was Bernhard Langer in 1985.

3. Don't be surprised to see a playoff at Harbour Town. Stewart Cink's victory over Ted Purdy last year was the third playoff in four years.

4. Cink is the only player among the top 10 in the world in the field, which lends credence to the talk that taking a week off following the majors might not be such a bad idea. How good would Hilton Head's field be next week if it were pushed back?

5. The LPGA Tour resumes its schedule after a two-week break, but Annika Sorenstam will not get her sixth straight. She is not playing.

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.