HARRISON, N.Y. -- Tiger Woods smiled at the suggestion he's in a slump.
He smiled after he ducked and darted away from an errant shot that flew over the trees and nearly bopped him on the noggin on the 8th tee.
He smiled as he waited out the morning rain for four hours Wednesday, then sloshed through nine holes of a pro-am at the Buick Classic, mist and sprinkles soaking his short-sleeved white shirt but leaving his spirit undampened.
He kept right on smiling in the first round Thursday, his mood still buoyant as he shot a 4-under 67, placing him in a tie for fourth behind Briny Baird's 63.
This wasn't typical Tiger, all seriousness when he's between the ropes even if he's playing for fun. He more often saves his high-wattage smiles for TV commercials, magazine ads and trophy presentations.
There was something about that smile. It was not quite forced yet not as easy as he may have wanted it to seem, as if he decided to give himself a break and show everyone else he was untroubled by his collapse in the U.S. Open last weekend and his year of lost majors.
Given all the hyperbolic verbiage on his alleged slump, Woods' best response probably is to keep smiling, if not singing, in the rain.
Everyone should be in a slump like Tiger Woods. The poor guy has only three titles in eight tournaments this year, the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour, and a tad over $3.3 million in winnings. Oh, to suffer like that for just one season, many men toiling on the tour for years wouldn't even dare to dream.
"If you're batting over .300 in tournament wins, that's pretty good," Woods said in his own defense Wednesday before his 1-under 35 on a soggy front nine at the Westchester Country Club.
It's Woods' fault the charge of failure is even raised. In winning eight majors and a career Grand Slam, Woods fostered the illusion that it was all so effortless. If every drive didn't whistle true down the fairways, he saved himself often enough with creative shots between branches. If he needed a 40-foot putt, he curled one in. If he had a lead, he held it. If he had to come from behind, he attacked pins with unblinking courage.
The thought is that Woods is not the same these days. He had surgery on his left knee late last year, causing him to scale back his schedule and his time on the range.
"I can't stand out there on the range like Vijay (Singh) and hit balls till it's dark," he said. "I've got to be more focused on my practice sessions because of my knee. In some regards it's better because I get more accomplished.
"Some days I have to shut it down, and that's when it's most frustrating for me. Growing up, we all thought we were invincible - just go out there, hit any ball you want, play 72 holes a day. Can't do that anymore."
He's all of 27 but the aches and occasional mistakes are making his chase of Jack Nicklaus' 18 professional majors a more compelling challenge, not the cinch it appeared a year ago. As much as he had already admired Nicklaus, Woods' brief struggle has given him a greater appreciation of what it takes to be the best of all time.
"Am I chasing it? Well, I'm competing against it, yes, and hopefully one day I would like to be able to surpass that," Woods said. "But if I don't, that's fine, too. At the end of the day, I want to say I'm a better golfer than I was yesterday. That's my outlook, and if I keep doing that, hopefully that will be enough to be considered one of the greatest of all time."
He's already that. The question is whether he will resume his assault on the majors record at the British Open and PGA Championship this summer or stay stalled a while. However it turns out, to call his current state a slump is ludicrous.
"To us as players, we laugh at it, and I think Tiger should laugh at it because it's crazy," Ernie Els said. "If I had his record, I would not be out here. I would be out of here."
A slump, Woods supposed, is when a player's whole game falls apart. It's missing cuts, not just a few putts. It's a player like him going years without a major, not just one trip around the slams. Nicklaus had a three-year drought between winning his seventh and eighth majors and no one was pushing the panic button back then. None of the game's greats were expected to win all the time, and they weren't viewed as failures if they didn't.
"Times have changed," Woods said, adding that he's talked a lot about it with Arnold Palmer.
"I don't know what everyone's need is for categorizing everything. If I go on and win a couple tournaments and all of a sudden I'm playing great, unstoppable, and I don't win two weeks in a row, then ... I'm in a slump again. It's a roller coaster ride."
Woods shook his head and smiled when he said that, and he kept on smiling the rest of the day.
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