His performance at Firestone was laughable, full of shots you would expect from a 10 handicap, not the best golfer ever. A week that began with Tiger Woods talking about not having time to practice ended with him at 18 over par, the worst 72-hole score of his career. The post-tournament media briefing was just as comical, as Tiger leaned on self-deprecating humor in an attempt to explain himself. It was almost as rare as the awful play that preceded it.
For the first time since his infamous public confession (Feb. 19), however, Woods sounded like a man ready to surrender to reality, which would qualify as a huge step forward in a rehabilitation process that hasn’t really happened. At Firestone, a golf course he has dominated like no other, Tiger’s basically was inept. Perhaps the experience altered him to the fact that hard work and success are synonymous, that focus is as essential to shooting a decent number as a tweak to the golf swing.
“Not tomorrow,” Woods said of searching for answers after Sunday’s final-round 77. “I’ll be up there [Whistling Straits] today. I can probably play 18 and still watch the guys finish [at Firestone].” From a guy who five days earlier had blamed his winless 2010 on a busy schedule, the sense of urgency amounted to progress.
At the very least, Eldrick Almighty has turned misaligned priorities into a felony. No time to work on his game? Really? Forget for a moment that any tour pro, much less the best in the world, isn’t afforded the luxury of such an excuse. As revelations of his illicit behavior turned into an avalanche last winter, it became clear that Tiger had remained a great player despite his off-course transgressions. The lies to his wife, deceptive life and adulterous stretches added up to a massive distraction, yet he still won five or six times without breaking a sweat and never had to worry about losing the No. 1 spot in the world ranking.
Firestone proved Woods can’t overcome anything and everything. Instead of immersing himself in golf to soothe the pain of a collapsed marriage, Tiger appears to have done the opposite. Considering all the self-imposed damage, a loss of desire almost seems logical, but at some point, a man must identify who he is and what he does. First, second and third, Tiger Woods is a golfer. If finishing 30 strokes out of first place doesn’t lead him to the Land of Soul Searching, nothing will, but my sense is that last week’s misery served as a pretty loud wake-up call.
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For the record, on-site sources at Whistling Straits say they did not see Woods on the grounds Sunday afternoon. His caddie, Steve Williams, went through his usual pre-tournament preparation, but Tiger didn’t show, which doesn’t mean that he wasn’t working on his game somewhere else. The fact that he was so unforgiving and excuse-free when assessing the state of his game is a step in the right direction. Even if he’s 15 or 20 steps away from returning to premium form.
If you’re U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin, you express concern over Woods’ woes but acknowledge that you have to offer him a spot on the team if he doesn’t qualify. You don’t leave behind a guy with 71 victories and 14 major titles – doesn’t matter how sideways he’s hitting it. A lot can change between now and October 1, and besides, Pavin doesn’t have to make his picks until Sept. 7, so we’re talking about a pretty large window of opportunity. That said, the decision to participate should be Tiger’s. If he’s playing like he is now, he won’t want to go, anyway.
“Shooting 18 over par is not fun,” Woods quipped shortly before heading to Whistling Straits. “I don’t see how it can be fun. Especially when my handicap is supposed to be zero.” A chuckle or two later, one could see how Tiger’s only true handicap is a reluctance to come to terms with reality.