There is a good reason why people tend to jump back on to the Tiger Woods bandwagon every time he pieces together a couple of decent rounds.
It’s because when they look at him they see Tiger Woods. Problem is, he’s not.
He’s not the Tiger Woods who dominated golf in ways no one in history has ever dominated the sport. He’s not the Tiger Woods who made getting up-and-down from anywhere look so easy that the only real question seemed to be whether he’d hole out from off the green or walk up for a tap-in.
And he’s most certainly not the Tiger Woods who, in a rare moment of complete honesty, once said finishing second “sucks.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t going to win more majors. As he pointed out repeatedly after his victory at the Memorial, he’s still only 36. That’s right in golfing middle age and there isn’t any doubt that Woods is going to continue to work maniacally on finding the missing pieces in his game because that’s who he is and who he always has been.
Even so, it was shocking to hear him talk about how encouraged he is, about how close he is, after he collapsed on a weekend at a major championship in a manner one would expect from a mini-tour player who somehow found himself on top of a 36-hole leaderboard and then remembered who he really was when he woke up on Saturday.
It is to Woods’ credit that he talked to the media after his rounds on Saturday and Sunday even if he did react to Roger Maltbie asking him if the hand that smacked a camera on his way off of 18 on Saturday was alright, as if Maltbie had asked him how things were going with his ex-wife. You go from tied for the lead in the U.S. Open on Friday night to five shots back on Saturday night you should be a little bit cranky.
But let’s face it, the old Woods wouldn’t have talked to Maltbie or anybody else on Saturday. And Sunday? He would have been in the car and out of Dodge – or San Francisco – before the group behind his had walked up the hill to the 18th green at Olympic.
Butch Harmon, who was Woods’ teacher during the period when he was so much better than the rest of the world, made the comment a few months ago that he believed part of his old pupil’s problem was that he was trying to be someone he’s not; that trying to rehab his public image in order to win back corporate sponsors was getting in the way of rehabbing his golf game.
There may be something to that. Or there may be something to the theory that he has spent so much time trying to hit the ball straight off the tee that he’s lost the magic he once had around the greens.
Or maybe it’s just this: he’s trying too hard in the majors.
That’s natural for everyone who plays golf at the highest level. Does anyone think for one second that Jim Furyk would have hit a tee shot like the one that came off his club at No. 16 on Sunday if he was in contention at Bay Hill, the Memorial or, for that matter, The Players?
Of course not. Even though the Official World Golf Rankings and the FedEx Cup point systems don’t acknowledge the fact that the majors are at least 10 times as important as any weekly tournament, the fact is they are to everyone who has ever teed it up on Tour.
And for Woods, they are even more important than that. He’s said as much from the first day he first popped onto golf’s radar and, for the most part, has never backed away from that. There was the tiniest crack in that veneer when he won at Memorial. For some reason, he really wanted people to understand how remarkable it was that he had matched Nicklaus’s 73 Tour victories. He repeatedly pointed out that he’s 10 years younger than Nicklaus was when he won his 73rd tournament, something he never would have brought up pre-hydrant. His response then would have been something like, “It’s an honor to have my name in the same sentence with Jack Nicklaus but this is NOT the number I’m ultimately after.”
Maybe the thought has crossed his mind that he might not reach that number, the one that appeared to be an absolute lock at the moment four years ago when he last kissed a major trophy. Maybe that’s why he’s squeezing the club so tight at the majors these days.
Think about this: after his victory at Torrey Pines, Woods had won six of the previous 14 majors. Earlier in his career he won seven-of-11 at one point. It was not unreasonable to think that today, 16 majors later, he would already be at 19. Even if you account for the two he missed at the end of 2008 he still would have had 14 chances to win five more and be past Nicklaus now.
Of course, since that day his body has betrayed him and he betrayed his family. His putter has turned on him at key times and even his nerves have frayed. Four years ago, tied for the 36-hole lead at a major, Woods would have wondered only by how much he was going to win, not if he was going to win.
He’s correct when he says he’s seen progress. He’s won twice on Tour this year and finished second with a closing 62 on another occasion. But the majors have been a different story. In fact, his past four majors have produced the following results: DNP-injured; missed cut; T-40; T-21.
Do those results look like Tiger Woods? Consider for a moment his results the last year he was completely healthy and scandal-free, which was 2007: T-2; T-2; T-12; 1. And he wasn’t all that thrilled with those numbers.
In the end, there’s probably too much of the old Woods rummaging around inside the one we’re looking at right now for him not to win again when it really counts. He’s smart and he’s driven like perhaps no one in golf history has ever been driven. Nicklaus was driven by history; Woods is driven by history and anger.
But when it does happen, when he does win again on a Sunday when he really and truly cares, let’s not start screaming, ‘he’s back!’ The new Tiger Woods may be good enough to win a major. But the old one, the one who would have won by five last week and then said, “it’s nice win but I’ve got a lot to work on,” is never coming back.