Back in the day, Tiger Woods appeared to relish riding atop the chaos, above the raucous waves of excitement that followed him wherever he went.
Like Kelly Slater surfing epic peaks at Banzai Pipeline ...
Like Chris Sharma dangling atop all the hazards on the cliff face of “The Impossible Climb” at Clark Mountain ...
Hell, like Chuck Yeager ahead of the sonic boom he created breaking the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 over the Mojave Desert in 1947.
It was difficult to tell whether Woods was fueling the bedlam in his duel with Bob May in the 2000 PGA Championship, or if it was fueling him.
Fans scampered in a frenzy you rarely see in golf to get the best look they could at his next shot at Valhalla in that playoff.
Same thing when Woods turned his 15-shot rout into a victory parade in the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach that same year.
And when Woods improbably chipped in at the 16th at Augusta National to shake every pine tree at the Masters before going on to defeat Chris DiMarco in a playoff in 2005.
Tiger brought a boisterous, turbulent new wave of excitement to the game, unrivaled since Arnie’s Army followed the legend in his heyday.
Woods attracted new fans who did not understand golf’s time-honored traditions. He lured them to the game’s most hallowed grounds. There were challenges with that, though they always seemed more daunting to Woods’ playing partners than to him.
At his best, Tiger seemed to be one with the chaos, able to turn its energy into his energy.
Every Tiger pairing in his prime turned wherever he was into a home game, turned every golf course into his stadium and transformed every opponent into the visiting team.
We heard how hard that was for the Bob Mays, Chris DiMarcos and even the Ernie Els of the world.
That’s what added to the intrigue of Tiger’s return to Riviera last week, and what will make this week at PGA National and the Honda Classic similarly interesting.
Well, the overly exuberant frenzy only he can create is back, but his game isn’t. Not yet. And now we’re hearing how the bedlam is a challenge to more than his playing partners. It’s a challenge to his game, too.
“It cost me a lot of shots over the years,” Woods said at the Genesis Open. “It’s cost me a few tournaments here and there.
“I’ve dealt with it for a very long time.”
Huh? Did Tiger forget the advantage he had playing in a storm? Or are today’s storms different, more unruly, more destructive?
Did having total control of all facets of his game when he was at his best make the bedlam work for him?
Does the focus it requires to find his old magic today make the chaos work against him?
Jack Nicklaus used to say that when he heard players complaining about difficult conditions going into a major, he checked them off his list of competitive threats.
You wonder if Tiger did the same back in the day, when players talked about the challenges that surrounded a pairing with him.
Golf is different than other sports. That has to be acknowledged here.
When you hear mainstream sports fans wonder what is so wrong with a fan yelling in a player’s backswing, you know they don’t understand the game. A singular comment breaking the silence over a player’s shot in golf is like a fan sneaking onto the field in football and tripping a receiver racing up the sideline. It is game-changing chaos.
Is Tiger facing game-changing chaos now?
Or was Riviera’s noise something he just can’t harness in his current state of repair? Is there more pressure on him trying to come back in that environment?
If Rory McIlroy needed a “couple Advil” for the headache the mayhem at the Genesis Open caused him playing with Tiger last week, then May and DiMarco must have needed shots of Demerol.
Then all those guys who lost majors to Tiger in final-round pairings with him must have felt like they endured four-hour migraines.
“It got a little out of hand,” Justin Thomas said of his two days with Tiger at Riviera.
Maybe McIlroy and Thomas were dealing with something boisterously new, more Phoenix Open in its nausea than anything Tiger created when he broke golf out of a niche.
Whatever it is, Tiger’s challenge finding his best will be even more complicated if he’s no longer one with the chaos, if he can no longer turn its energy into his energy.
If that’s the case, he really may be just one of the guys this time around.