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Tiger turns his doubts into another great year

| Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009

LEMONT, Ill. — Tiger Woods is turning into quite the trivia buff.

During the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship two weeks ago, he saw a couple of familiar faces as he walked off the 10th tee and approached as if wanting to impart some important information.

"Which city sits on two continents?" he said. "And what country has the most lakes?"

His favorite golf question: The eight major champions with the letter "z" in their surname.

When it comes to his own trivia, Woods often doesn't have a clue.

He kept track of the score at the BMW Championship, which was all that mattered to him. Woods built such a big lead at Cog Hill with his course-record Saturday that his only goal for the final round was to break par.

He closed with a 68 and wound up winning by eight shots.

In an era when a three-shot margin is considered comfortable, this was the fourth straight year Woods has won by at least eight, and the 10th time in his PGA Tour career. He was asked if big victories like that gave him additional satisfaction.

"First of all, I did not know that," he said with a smile that suggested he was pleased to find out.

Odds are, he isn't aware that he tied Sam Snead with his sixth year of six victories or more. To put that in perspective, only one other player over the last 25 years has won six times in a season — Vijay Singh in 2004.

So really, has anything changed about Woods?

He makes winning look ridiculously routine. Because he usually plays only the stronger courses, his adjusted scoring average is 68.06, giving him a 1.26 margin over second place. Such a gap is not unlike Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes — or even Woods in the world ranking, in which he has doubled the lead over Steve Stricker.

So, why is Woods so proud of his game• Why does he call this one of his best years when he didn't win a major?

Only he can appreciate how badly his ligaments were shredded in his left knee. Only he knows the extent of the surgery, not to mention the eight-month recovery that allowed doubts to invade his mind about how quickly he could get back to where he was.

Woods has been saying all summer that he never could have imagined winning so much after such a major surgery. Yet the more he keeps winning, the harder it is to believe him.

"If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year ... any of you guys probably wouldn't have predicted I would have had a year like I did," Woods said Sunday. "To be as consistent as I've been this year, I'm very proud of that."

Even so, consistency is nothing new.

Over the last three years, Woods has finished out of the top 10 only seven times in 40 tournaments. Go back to Hoylake for the 2006 British Open, and he has won 52 percent of his PGA Tour events.

Sure, there are some noticeable differences.

· For the first time since he was a 20-year-old rookie, he had a lead in the final round on the PGA Tour and lost. Making it that much worse, it happened in a major for the first time ever, and it was Woods' last chance to win a major this year.

· He failed to win a major, which is how he typically measures a successful year.

· He missed the cut in the British Open for the first time, including two starts as an amateur.

So what makes this year so different• His own doubts.

"There was so many uncertainties at the beginning of the season," Woods said. "I didn't know how the leg was going to respond. I've never had a leg that was stable. What kind of shots could I play• How was my recovery going to be from day-to-day• Am I going to hurt again• A lot of these things, I didn't know.

"To come back and be, as I said, this consistent feels pretty good."

For Woods to keep raving about exceeding expectations speaks to how low he might have set the bar after knee surgery.

Look back at his reaction, when he screamed and ran into a hug with caddie Steve Williams after making a 15-foot birdie to win at Bay Hill. Yes, it was the last hole. It was for the win. The extra emotion comes from being his first victory since knee surgery.

So even if winning this year looks routine, it isn't to Woods.

And while the victories continue to pile up — his 71st on the PGA Tour — it is no less amazing.

After his third round at Cog Hill, Stricker headed to the range with his father-in-law and coach, Dennis Tiziani. This has been Stricker's best year, with three PGA Tour victories and a career-high No. 2 world ranking.

His caddie, Jimmy Johnson, was chatting about the turning points in the season when he realized Stricker had won three times in his last nine starts. That's winning at a 33 percent clip, which is strong stuff.

Then he was told Woods has won 30 percent of his tournaments over a 13-year career.

Johnson just laughed. What else can you do?

As for that trivia question• Istanbul lies between Europe and Asia. Canada has the most lakes.

What that has to do with anything remains a mystery.

But if Woods were to win the Tour Championship next week in Atlanta, he would be the first golfer to go over $11 million for a season. He probably doesn't know that.

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