Six starts, 21 rounds – Woods has been keen to remind us how little competitive golf he has played this year, which sounds like a lot like another one of those personal problems. Normally, he would have appeared in 10 events at this point in the season, but if Eldrick Almighty has made a rather nice career out of a limited PGA Tour schedule, he hasn’t done a thing in ’10 to make up for the four tournaments he lost in the first three months.
The guy flies to Ireland to participate in some celebrity pro-am, then jets home for a few days before returning for the British Open? I’ve never been one to question Woods’ major-championship preparation, but you’d think going back and forth would set him back in terms of the acclimation process. He’s such a terrific golfer that he can finish in the top five at the majors without his best stuff, especially when the winning score ends up close to par. But nothing he has done since his return can substantiate his 7-to-2 odds as the favorite at St. Andrews.
You can point to the eight-stroke romp on the Old Course in 2000, Woods first claret jug, and the follow-up triumph on the same venue in 2005. In both instances, however, Tiger was at the top of his game. He’s nowhere close to that level now. More than two years have passed since his last major title, making this the third such stretch in his 14 years as a pro, which makes this a good time to examine the two prior droughts: when and why they happened, and what Woods did to end them.
1998: Less than three months after his historic, 12-stroke Masters victory in ’97, Young Tiger picked up his fourth win of the year at the Western Open. His first full season on the Tour could not have been proceeding more smoothly, but just like that, Woods stopped hoisting trophies. He managed just one top-five finish in his final eight tournaments in ’97, then won just once in 20 starts in ’98. The first of his seven career wins at Torrey Pines got him back on track in early ’99, but it wasn’t until the second half of the year that Woods reached a level of dominance that would make him one of the greatest players ever.
Early ’98, however, was a period of mechanical reconstruction for Woods. If his weak second half in ’97 was the result of rookie-season burnout, which Tiger has cited on numerous occasions, his woes the following year can be attributed to his adjusting to a shorter, more controlled backswing. Butch Harmon, Woods’ coach at the time, was steadfast in his belief that Tiger would not dominate consistently until he eliminated the excess action at the top, which often led to his “getting stuck” en route to the ball.
It took a while, but Woods obviously began to master the tighter move in 2000, when he won nine times in 20 starts, claimed three majors and finished the year with 47 consecutive rounds of par or better. If many regard Tiger’s 2000 as the greatest year in golf history, there is no question in my mind that three key occurrences in ’99 precipitated this unparalleled stretch of brilliance.
In late March, Tiger was unseated atop the World Ranking by David Duval, who finally reached No. 1 after winning the Players Championship. For a man who can find motivation in things no one else notices, this served as a five-alarm wakeup call. Woods needed to get better, and he needed to get better in a hurry.
In August, Tiger was taken to the wire at the PGA Championship by Sergio Garcia, the dashing Spanish teenager whose exuberance and shotmaking skill had quickly christened him as Woods’ competitive equal. Tiger would hold off Garcia to win his first major since the ’97 Masters, ending a 2 1/2-year famine, but again, there was a ton of incentive to be gleaned off the emergence of a player seemingly as talented as Woods – and four years younger.
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2004: The second gap in the Woods Dynasty was far more scrutinized than the first, largely because Tiger had left Harmon in mid-2002 and operated without a swing coach for the better part of two years. The coachless stretch neatly coincides with the period of almost three years between Woods’ seventh and eighth major titles. Although 2003 was hardly a bust – five victories, a 68.41 scoring average – Woods’ only top 10 at a major came at the British Open, where he finished T-4.
At the Bay Hill Invitational in March ’04, Woods was seen working for the first time publicly with swing coach Hank Haney. This would lead to a pronounced transition in his swing, and predictably, the results, at least initially, were not what we had come to expect. Tiger’s only victory that year was at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. He didn’t threaten at any of the majors, a T-9 at the British was his best showing. When Vijay Singh stared him down that September in Boston, defeating Woods in a head-to-head Labor Day matchup, he had surrendered the top spot in the World Ranking once again.
It was the year of Butch vs. Hank, and many people, including some fellow Tour pros, wondered aloud why Tiger would attempt to grasp the theories of Haney when his work with Harmon had produced such a productive blend of power and control. While Sir Eldrick struggled to replicate the Haney’s “perfect plane” concept, however, he was also courting the woman he would marry that October. To say that Woods spent much of ’04 in a state of highly distracted bliss would not be a reach. Winning golf tournaments was what he did for a living, but for the first time ever, there was actually more to life than cashing a first-place check.
2010: Here we are, six years later, and the marriage is over. Woods appears agitated and short-tempered, his body language reflective of a man who would rather be somewhere else. Golf has given him everything, but much of that has been lost by virtue of his own selfish behavior, and a guy who has glided through life on a 30-year run of success now finds himself waking up every morning to a giant pile of personal issues. Maybe Tiger will win the British Open. Maybe he’ll break out of his funk with one of those stretches where he wins five times in six starts and leaves all his would-be rivals stranded in a cloud of late-summer dust.
Maybe, or maybe not. Until Phil Mickelson takes over the No. 1 position in the World Ranking, until the man still clinging to the top spot finally comes to terms with himself and the behavior that caused this entire mess, until the best golfer of this generation enlists the services of a swing coach who will offer advice and gentle suggestion, not instruction, Tiger Woods will continue to struggle. Sometimes, you can find the future hiding in the not-so-distant past.