Memory loss: How our brains now interpret Tiger

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Our memories are always the last thing to comply.

Our eyes? They know immediately. They divulge the truth. They are the storytellers, the great detectors. They instantly reveal the certainties taking place right in front of us.

Our minds? They trick us at first. They want us to believe that what we’re seeing is an anomaly. Soon, though, they process the information. They help us understand the facts.

Our instincts? They need more time. They’ve been conditioned to react a certain way. They don’t take kindly to change, but eventually, even they can help us accept that things are now different.

But our memories? No, our memories don’t want to budge. Our memories don’t want to admit that what we’ve already experienced – with our eyes, our minds, our instincts – can be so readily altered. Our memories forever recall the glory days. They can paint images in our head of everlasting success. They heartily reject change, because they haven’t yet witnessed it.

In sports, our memories are what allow us to believe that the past remains eternal. They are what tell us it’s an impossibility that a fleet-footed Willie Mays will grow sluggish with the New York Mets. They can’t fathom that a cocksure Joe Namath will appear meek with the Los Angeles Rams.

And for many, our memories prevent us from processing the Tiger Woods who played 36 holes in 155 hesitant strokes this week.

Our eyes knew it immediately. From the timid 4-iron he used to chip on the first hole Thursday to the makeable par attempt he missed on the last hole Friday, they told us that this isn’t the same Woods we knew during those glory days. Our minds didn’t want to believe it at first. Not during his injury plagued last season, when he missed the cut in his last official start and chunked his way to a last-place finish at his own event, but they’ve helped us understand what is taking place. Our instincts needed more time. They led us to conclude that his recent struggles were only temporary, that they were the culmination of injuries and swing changes. Even our instincts, though, are now helping us accept that things are different.


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But our memories are the last thing to comply. They recall the high-arcing tee shot that a brazen 21-year-old Woods once hit on this very course for a hole-in-one – a clip which has been replayed ad nauseum this week. They remember the intimidation factor and the tunnel vision and the myriad intangible skills which made him such a dominant force. And yes, they remind us that this is the same player who has won 14 major championship titles.

Except, it isn’t.

This isn’t the same Woods who won those 14 majors, isn’t the same dominant force and certainly isn’t the same brazen 21-year-old. And now, finally, our memories are helping us discern that. No longer are they only flooded with the positive. No longer do they only allow us to recall those glory days. There are now enough memories of Woods not only failing to win majors, but missing cuts and appearing completely lost, that even they are coming to the realization that things have changed.

Our memories are now filled with visions of Woods posting a second-round 82, his highest single-round score as a professional. They have proof of what our eyes told us, that whether he was using a 4-iron or a wedge or a putter, his confidence around the greens has disappeared. Six times during Friday’s round, Woods failed to get a short chip shot onto the putting surface. That’s hardly excusable for a single-digit handicap; it’s downright indefensible for one of the best players of all-time.

This is nothing new, either. The last time he teed it up competitively, Woods chunked nine of these shots. The time he played before that, he gritted through injuries, but missed the cut. He’s coming off his third winless season in the last five, if we only count official events. Not so suddenly, those memories of majors – which have eluded him for seven years now – have been replaced by other, gloomier recollections.

Now, all we can do is wait. Wait to see whether these current memories can be replaced, whether Woods can reimagine those past successes or laboriously limp into the sunset like Joe Willie and the Say Hey Kid.

Upon his arrival this week, Woods attempted to be prophetic, smiling and hinting toward long-term prosperity. “It’s going to be a fun year,” he said at the time – and there was no reason to think he didn’t believe it.

Prior to leaving the course after missing the cut on Friday, he offered a more solemn response about the future. “Practice each and every day,” he said about his impending chore. “Just work on it.”

And with that, he was gone, leaving lasting memories of a player without confidence and without optimism.

Our memories are always the last thing to comply. After watching Woods’ most recent decline, though, even our memories are now armed with enough images to change our perspective.