CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There are two glasses of water. Both are half-full, but one glass is splintered from top to bottom and the water is a yellowish-brown – so murky that you’d be wise to think of it as half-empty, at which point optimism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For the New and Supposedly Improved Tiger Woods, life as the world’s best golfer now comes with a double-edged sword. Scrutiny of the man has never been greater, and in an attempt to tidy up his public image, Woods has vowed to improve his on-course behavior. Tiger’s golf ball, however, keeps misbehaving: four-of-14 fairways Thursday at Quail Hollow, back-to-back tee shots in the agua, a morning full of misses to both sides and not enough magic with the putter to salvage a day that began with a birdie but ended with a series of very short answers in an interview with Golf Channel's Steve Sands.
Because he teed off at 7:40 a.m., Tiger’s round wasn’t televised, meaning the profanity factor wasn’t really in play, but it was a round worthy of a few expletives, a round we’ve seen Woods play 50 times before. A 78 he managed to turn into a 74 through the power of determination, because the best golfer at his worst is still better than anybody else’s awful. Still, coming off that shabby weekend at the Masters and the general tendency to overanalyze everything Woods does, Eldrick Almighty’s game is beginning to mirror his personal life. Unrest and uncertainty, further complicated by prolific doses of speculation.
A few minutes after Woods finished at 2 over par, I sent a text message to Hank Haney, merely expressing surprise that Tiger hadn’t asked his swing coach to accompany him to Charlotte. Haney quickly responded, saying he attended just four tournaments in 2009 and hasn’t been a fixture at Tour events for years, at which point he embarked on his customary media rant – a reply that would come as no surprise to those who know Haney as a sensitive man in a difficult position.
None of what Haney said changes the facts. Woods may spend the next three days spraying the ball all over North Carolina, or he may shoot 65-65 on the weekend to win by four, but he hasn’t driven the ball effectively or consistently for a long time, and his last three rounds are an extension of that problem. Last year marked the first time Tiger finished among the top 130 on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy (86th) since he began working with Haney in mid-2004. In ’05, he hit a career-low 54.6 percent of his fairways but still won two majors and six times overall.
If he drove it straight, he’d win every time he plays, but since Woods plays from the short grass barely half the time, he only wins about half his starts. You and I should be forced to cope with such nagging problems.
A natural left-to-right player who has spent the last six years working with a guy whose instruction template is built around a right-to-left ball flight, Tiger is well aware that some of the best stretches of his career have occurred under Haney, which hasn’t prevented the detractors from wondering whether Tiger has piled up the victories because of his swing coach or despite him. Hank, as you might suspect, isn’t a big fan of those people. Woods, meanwhile, for all his on-course histrionics, has never really leaned heavily in one direction or the other when it comes to addressing Haney’s critics.
He golfs his ball and beats 'em all – more often than not, anyway – and sometimes pays the consequences. From a wide-angle perspective, however, Woods’ skulking, hapless demeanor of late does not reflect that of a man who should be incredibly grateful for the physical gifts and mental toughness he takes to every first tee. I’m not expecting cartwheels after four-of-14 fairways and a double-water-ball 74, but this is not a man who seems pleased as punch to be out there after six months of tabloid hell.
The best only want to get better, and the best of all-time will accept nothing less. I don’t know if there’s a reason why Haney’s not in Charlotte, but it’s not Hank’s ball, it’s not Hank’s call, and it’s definitely not Hank’s fault if the glass is cracked and the water is murky.