So Close So Far Away


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Tiger Woods passing Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record used to be a foregone conclusion. We knew he would pass the Golden Bear just like we knew that sneaky Lucy Van Pelt was going to pull the football away from Charlie Brown at the last possible moment.

Five years ago, after Woods won the Masters and British Open to get the major tally to 10, people were looking forward to 2010 as the Year of the Tiger. Granted, there have been many of said years but this was supposed to be different. Augusta National, Pebble Beach and the Old Course were built with Tiger Woods in mind. At one time or another, all three have been turned into his own personal chew toys.

Being so close has never seemed so far.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods failed to break par in his final three rounds at the Open Championship. (Getty Images)
Woods, 34, entered St. Andrews no closer to Nicklaus’ 18 majors than he was 25 months ago, still four away from a push and five away from immortality. Still, after coming off consecutive fourth-place ties in majors this year, Woods was the prohibitive favorite at local betting parlors.

It’s not a huge surprise that he didn’t win, but he was a dead lock to cash in the each-way bet, meaning he needed to finish in the top-five for bettors to collect. Woods was five shots from that, finishing at 3-under-par 285, good for a 23rd-place tie. Throw away missed cuts at the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2009 British Open and this was Woods’ worst finish at a major since the 2004 PGA Championship.

“If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard,” Nicklaus said earlier this year. The Golden Bear has proved to be a wise man. He knows a thing or two about missed opportunities, having finished second in majors (19) more times than he won (18).

To Tiger, this week in the Auld Grey Toon was just another step in the process of getting back to the top of the heap. He never expected to shake the personal problems off like gnats and dominate right away. But he never expected to be this inconsistent and not contend at any tournament that means something to him. This was Woods’ seventh start of the year. The only time he’s gone winless longer to start a season was in 1998 when it took him nine starts to capture victory. WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship are his next two tilts.

A putter change at the beginning of the week was a move that made people scratch their collective heads. While the British press was hammering Woods about his personal life, the U.S. press couldn’t believe that Woods would send a putter to ride the pine that had won 72 times around the world, including 13 major championships. After taking 99 putts the first three rounds with the Nike Method, he changed back to his trusty Scotty Cameron Newport 2 and took 27 blows on Sunday, his best of the week. When do you recall ever seeing a Doubting Tiger?

“It was atypical Tiger,” said Lucas Glover, Woods playing partner for the final round when Woods shot 72. “I’m sure he wasn’t happy. He still hit a lot of good golf shots. It wasn’t him, but he’ll be back.”

Woods’ take: “Driving-wise, better than it’s been in years. Iron play, not quite as sharp as I need to have it, and my putting is way off. Short game is good.”

Problem is that Woods Kryptonite for the first six events of the year was with the driver, battling the dreaded two-way miss off the tee. Here at the Old Course it was the opposite as he was finding fairways – which here at the Old Course are bigger than airport runways – but missing putts he used to make with his eyes closed.

“Maybe I should go back to spraying it all over the lot and make everything,” Woods quipped.

As is usually the case with Woods, it’s difficult to tell if he truly means what he says or if he just doesn’t want to give the mental edge to the competition by saying he’s not playing well. He keeps saying that he’s close, that it’s only a matter of time before everything clicks, but it seems like one step forward, two steps back.

Woods shot a third-round 66 at the U.S. Open, but struggled to a final-round 75. Here he opened with a brilliant 67 that made his fellow competitors break out in a rash. The second-round 73 was another masterpiece in terrible conditions, but 73, 72 on the weekend were mediocre. In all he made 17 birdies, 10 bogeys, two double bogeys and took 126 putts. That same recipe around Whistling Straits next month for the PGA Championship is more likely to lead to a missed cut than it is the Wanamaker Trophy.

 If you think men on the PGA Tour aren’t paying attention to Woods’ every move, think again. Phil Mickelson admitted that if he’s ever going to ascend to the No. 1 World Ranking he needs to do it soon because once Woods finds his groove it could be history for his hopes. Others have been outspoken by saying that they believe they may be grinding too much right now, trying to make something happen before Woods becomes himself again.

“He’s this close to Tiger 2000,” said one major champion, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, referring to Woods’ most dominant year ever. “When he gets it, we’re all screwed.”

This is merely a Humpty Dumpty case. Woods sat on the wall for more than a decade, reigning over all of golf. The sex scandal last November was his great fall. Now comes the part where we find out if all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can put Woods back together again. In the nursery rhyme, they couldn’t. With Woods, if it’s going to happen, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Reality is that players don’t win majors much past 40. Tom Watson didn’t win another big one after 33. For Arnold Palmer it was 34. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman both stopped winning majors after 38. Most thought Nicklaus was done at 40 but he made a little magic at Augusta National one more time in 1986 and won at 46.

Woods is certainly fitter than the aforementioned group during their prime, but he has had knee issues in the past and his frame has taken a beating over the past decade. If he’s going to catch the Golden Bear he’ll need to be firing on all cylinders over the next five years. If history holds, there are 20-24 majors where Woods will need to pick up five victories.

“I don’t know,” Mickelson said earlier in the week. “I still think the chances are better that he will do it than he won’t.”

Agreed. But chances now are greater that Lucy will pull the football away from Charlie Brown.