— If you had done a word association game with the name "Tiger Woods" just a short couple of years ago, you might have come up with responses such as "dominant," "champion," "majors," "winner," etc. Unfortunately, that Tiger is no longer with us.
Sad. It’s a long story and the details to this day are still sketchy, but it involved an SUV, a driveway and a fire hydrant, and the outcome was made even worse when his then wife Elin swung a golf club in an effort to rescue him and instead hit a Blackberry full of mistresses.
He recovered from minor injuries and returned to golf, so physically, for the most part, he’s O.K. Unfortunately, that’s the newer version, the post-accident Tiger Woods. The old Tiger was carried away on a gurney with a sheet over his face on that November day in 2009. He didn’t make it.
Yes, I’m afraid the Tiger Woods who won 14 major championships and amassed 71 victories on the PGA Tour is pushing up daisies in the rough. In lieu of flowers, he asks that you remember the good times.
This is not to say that this Tiger won’t win again. Back in April, he was in contention to win the Masters on the final day; he finished tied for fourth, four shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel. So it’s not like he’s in Ian Baker-Finch country, or even David Duval land.
But few in the gallery scream out "You Da Man!" anymore. He doesn’t lash out at photographers for snapping photos during his backswing, because there are fewer of them following him. In the past, when pundits handicapped a tournament, there was Tiger, and then there was "The Field." Now? He’s among "The Field."
He still has a shot at winning. It’s just that now he has the same chance as everybody else.
He’s 35 and approaching a natural downturn anyway. Younger stars are moving onto the leader board. He was in a race to catch Jack Nicklaus at 18 majors. But the real competition was between the momentum he had versus Father Time. Now that matchup seems like a rout in favor of the geezer.
Tiger is coming off one of the more humiliating weekends of his golf life. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship in suburban Atlanta. His 77 on Thursday was his worst round ever in a PGA Championship and worst opening round ever in a major. If you put his Thursday and Friday of last week in a hacker’s context, it would be like hitting so many worm-burners off the tee that your friends make you play the rest of the round off the ladies’ tees while dressed like Little Bo Peep.
Why does the old Tiger Woods have rigor mortis? Why is this happening to him? A dream team of Viennese psychoanalysts might not arrive at a definitive answer. But I have a guess.
There’s the boxer example. A great fighter has an unwavering belief in his own invincibility — until he’s knocked cold. Then he begins to have doubts. He continues to put in the same amount of work and dedication that he always did. But something’s off. It isn’t quite the way it was before. The belief system has a glitch in it.
You can see it in Tiger now, and not just in his scores. It’s his behavior, the way he is "arrogant Tiger" in one press gathering and "friendly Tiger" in another. He seems like he’s making an effort to interact with fans at one tournament, and then is aloof in another. It’s as if he’s unsure what he wants to be, or more accurately, WHO he wants to be.
Confusion exists in his swing, too. After Thursday’s round of the PGA, he talked about how early on he was fine and was having "mechanical thoughts." But then when he decided to trust his swing and play on instinct and feel, he blew up. What that says is there are factions at war in his brain. Analytical Tiger and Instinctive Tiger haven’t worked out a mutually beneficial agreement. The result is a lot more golf balls in the water and sand.
Caddygate also didn’t help. Getting rid of Steve Williams, the guy who was on Tiger’s bag for the bulk of his success, was strange by itself. But then there was the whole ensuing "Did he do it man-to-man, face-to-face?" debate. Not since the Dalai Lama offered "total consciousness" to Carl Spackler after a round instead of a tip had there been that much attention paid to a golfer-caddy issue in our lifetimes. The fallout: Another distraction for Tiger.
This season is just about over. The last time he won a tournament was Sept. 13, 2009, when he triumphed in the BMW Championship. That was about two months before the now infamous Escalade escapade. Since then, the news on Tiger has been about his women, his divorce, his endorsements, his ailments, his management, his caddy and the many candidates for the title of "the next Tiger."
The new Tiger has caused lots of commotion. The old Tiger has been deathly quiet.
Again, that doesn’t mean he’ll never win again. He might. He’s reportedly planning to take a break until Nov. 10-13, when he’ll compete in the Australian Open in Sydney, an event he hasn’t played since 1996, his first year as a professional. The following week comes the Presidents Cup in Melbourne, and he has to hope that Fred Couples makes him a captain’s pick in order to get on the U.S. team.
It seems only natural that the new, unimproved Tiger would go Down Under hunting for old Tiger. The seasons are the opposite there. Maybe he’s hoping his game will reverse itself.
But that’s unlikely. The direction that Tiger is headed will take him far away from where he once was. That’s true of every golfer eventually, and for that matter, every professional athlete.
Yet when it happened to Tiger Woods so suddenly, it took everyone by surprise — including him. Somehow "You could still be Da Man occasionally!" just doesn’t have the same ring to it.