— It’s not Tiger Woods’ mental state that’s vulnerable. It’s his golf game.
This isn’t what we expected coming into the Masters. We thought that the danger to Tiger was from the questions about his personal life. But he breezed through that part of the program without breaking a sweat. If he was bothered by the attention focused on his extracurricular activities, he never showed it.
Anyway, it turned out that the public didn’t care about the state of his marriage. You could see that on the first tee on Thursday. When he split the fairway with his drive, the paying customers busted a lung for him, and it stayed that way all week.
There’s not a lot of reason to believe it will be any different at venues that are less polite than the cathedral of golf. He’ll get a catcall here and there, but fans come to watch him play golf, not answer questions about his marriage. The scandal is over. It’s all about the golf.
It remains to be seen just how good Tiger still is. It’s not about rust. He said himself if he didn’t think he could win the Masters, he wouldn’t have entered it. It’s about the way he responds under pressure.
It was there for him to win. Woods was in perfect position going into the weekend to pull off a victory that would have boosted his legend into another dimension. If he had come to Augusta after five months off and trounced the competition, we’d be talking about it forever.
Beyond that, it would have restored his aura of invincibility, the one that made lesser golfers hum Darth Vader music to themselves when Tiger walked onto the tee box. If he could come back from that layoff and that mental turmoil and win at Augusta, what chance would anyone have after he had a few tournaments under his belt?
But it’s not about playing more tournaments. The Tiger we saw at Augusta in April 2010 was pretty much the same one we saw in April 2009. It’s the same Tiger we saw at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
It’s a Tiger who can get into position to win, but can’t close the deal. It’s a Tiger who can fail to overtake Angel Cabrera, a Tiger who can fall to Lucas Glover, a Tiger who can lose a staredown to Y.E. Yang.
During Tiger’s career, the one thing we could be certain of was that he wouldn’t lose the lead on the last day of a major. But he did that in the PGA last year. And now he’s failed again to grab the lead in another major.
If something happens once, it’s an aberration. If it happens again, it’s a trend.
I’m not saying Tiger is through. That would be absurd. He’s obviously a great golfer, but at the moment, he’s no longer clearly the greatest golfer on the planet.
That title would probably go to Phil Mickelson, who played as perfect a tournament as you could play, collecting his third green jacket in impressive fashion.
Lefty used to be the guy who would always find a way to blow a major. Now Tiger’s doing the things his biggest rival used to do in the big ones: the drive hooked or sliced into the woods, the missed two-footer, the skulled chip shot, the brain cramp at the critical moment.
As a result, the Tiger mystique has joined his marriage in the intensive care unit. When he had the lead, the rest of the PGA Tour used to curl up in the fetal position and call for their mommies. When he was near it, you could see guys start to hyperventilate. Now, they don’t even blink.
This is not a good thing for Tiger, although it’s a wonderful thing for the PGA Tour. No longer is it a foregone conclusion that Tiger is going to sweep away the opposition. No longer is even a final-round lead a done deal.
You could tell he wasn’t happy about it during his post-game comments. He was disdainful of suggestions that his long layoff had anything to do with his failure to win. He practically retched at the thought of having finished fourth.
That was wonderful to see. It means he’s as fiercely competitive as ever, and all that talk about being a kinder, gentler golfer is just another good intention gone astray.
But what it doesn’t yet mean is that he’s what he used to be. He hasn’t been that since his knee surgery almost two years ago. He failed last year before his personal life caught up with him, and he’s failed this year after his fall.
He’s still great, but he’s not invincible. That’s bad for him, good for golf.