All the man needs from Santa is a breakfast ball. That Great Big Comeback would have worked better if it hadn’t spent most of the year traveling in reverse. How else do you explain claims of progress after frittering away four shots on a Sunday afternoon?
Not that Woods is by himself in the Land of Fallen Stars. If 2009 was draped in twisted storylines – Tom Watson headed an illustrious cast in a compilation of major-championship heartbreak – 2010 should be remembered for its competitive landmines. Phil Mickelson basically turned invisible after winning his third Masters. Lee Westwood missed six weeks in the heart of premium-field season, then returned to find the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking waiting in his locker, his only triumph coming four months earlier after Robert Garrigus’ 72nd-hole collapse in Memphis.
Dustin Johnson? America’s most consistent leaderboard presence won tons of money and three truckloads of sympathy – lovely consolation prizes for anyone who vaporizes in the final round of a U.S. Open, then grounds his club in a fake bunker with a PGA Championship on the line. Now that Woods isn’t picking up a half-dozen or so victories and gaining a vertical mile on the climb up Mount Nicklaus, pro golf seems sort of rudderless.
We keep slobbering over the potential of Rory McIlroy, but in recent months, he has looked like just another kid with a balky putter down the stretch and a bottle of butter-pecan hair dye. Paul Casey didn’t take the next step. Padraig Harrington is still looking for that magical 2008 calendar – a very good player, not a great one. Geoff Ogilvy managed to go eight months without a top-10 finish. Anthony Kim? Never mind.
Poor Sergio. He spent the better part of 10 years hunting Tiger, sometimes with a butter knife, but if Eldrick Almighty’s career hasn’t been the same since the fire hydrant, Garcia seems to have suffered a head-on collision with a mid-life crisis. Woods made domination look routine, as if it was his divine right to leave everyone else feeling mentally and physically inferior. In a game in which all the random variables combine to undermine a competitive dynasty, Tiger ruled the earth for 13 years, give or take a week.
Name another athlete who ever pulled off that stunt. Didn’t think you could.
In the rare previous instances when Woods reached the crossroads, he’d take a deep breath, duck into a corner market and emerge with three or four new trophies. This time, in lieu of any real oncoming traffic, there’s a blinking yellow light. Earl and Tida’s kid is about to turn 35, no big deal, but more than in the past, Tiger seems preoccupied with the mechanics of the golf swing, as if you win tournaments by having the best form, not shooting the lowest score.
His latest coach, Sean Foley, is basically a swing scientist. Fifty-five percent of your weight here, then 80 percent of it there. . .from the sharp-eyed, old-school method of Butch Harmon to Hank Haney, who tutored under master instructor John Jacobs, Woods has found himself a dude with a slide ruler and a theory.
That’s not to say Foley isn’t an excellent instructor or that Tiger won’t turn things around under Foley’s watch. We’re talking about the greatest feel player of all-time, however, a guy with surreal golf instincts whose most amazing shots often come from the trees 25 yards right of the fairway. Tiger turns into Houdini when he’s in trouble, maybe because he’s forced to think about flight and shape instead of his position at the top of the backswing.
Now he’s plotting a much bigger escape – fleeing the land of the winless. His 2010 was a bust, but Woods can rationalize the poor season by blaming his personal problems or the swing changes brought on by a new coach, as was the case in 2004. He hasn’t won a major since the 2008 knee surgery, a drought due to poor putting more than anything, but again, Woods can look you in the eye and tell you he has gone 2 ½ years without winning a major twice before.
If the last 12 months taught us anything, it’s that the Dude in the Red Shirt played the game at a higher level than anyone has ever seen – and for longer than anyone could imagine. His shortcomings in 2010 provided a unique opportunity for his primary rivals, none of whom were able to assert themselves, which makes 2011 the Year of the Question Mark. Tiger has built a career out of exclamation points, but as the calendar turns, Woods finds himself with a challenge unlike any he has ever faced. Period.