Woods close to major breakthrough or just delusional?


PITTSFORD, N.Y. – On his visit to the Augusta National media center prior to the 1992 Masters, Jack Nicklaus shared a joke he’d heard about a guy who walks into a bar with his dog. On the television in that bar, Nicklaus is playing in a golf tournament. Jack birdies a hole and the dog does a backflip. Nicklaus heads to the next tee and blasts a huge drive down the fairway, prompting the dog to sprint up and down the bar.

“Boy, he really loves Jack,” the bartender says. “What does he do when he wins?”

“I don’t know,” the dog’s owner replies. “I’ve only had him for six years.”

Nicklaus delivered the punchline with a self-deprecating smirk, and the room erupted in laughter. Can you imagine Tiger Woods resorting to such humor when asked about his major-championship drought? One thing is for certain: Woods has the next eight months to work on his explanation for not claiming a big title since he hobbled past Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open.

I truly believe he's trying too hard to win,” said Butch Harmon, Woods' swing coach from 1993-2002. “The (longer) he goes without winning one, the more pressure he puts on himself to do it.”

 It has become golf’s longest and most complicated saga. The Dry Spell From Hell if you’re a card-carrying Tiger fan, justice served for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you’re not. From mid-1997 until the summer of 1999, Woods played in 10 consecutive majors without a victory. He would go majorless for 10 again from mid-2002 until the 2005 Masters.

The current stretch is at 18, an ironic sort of number. Woods remains unwilling to address the matter in anything other than optimistic or shortsighted terms. “Is it concerning? No,” he said Sunday at Oak Hill. “I’ve been there [contending] in half of them, so that’s about right. If you’re there with a chance to win three-quarters of the time or half the time on the back nine, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

Half the time? Really? We’ll examine that claim in a moment. Has Tiger become a man in denial? Depends on who’s listening – the truth is in the ear of the beholder. As brilliant as he’s been over the years when it comes to striking a golf ball, Woods has been equally adept at deflecting suggestions of fallibility. His competitive mindset simply doesn’t allow admissions of weakness. It doesn’t matter what the numbers say or how long it has been since …

In Eldrick Almightyville, you never take off the bulletproof vest. Even after the pistols have been put away.

“The only time it was really hard was going into 2001,” he said of the eight months between the PGA Championship and following year’s Masters.

“That was tough because I was asked every day, ‘Is it a Grand Slam? Not a Grand Slam?’ To hear it for that long, and to hear I was in a slump when I didn’t win for three tournaments, or something like that.

“I heard it for a long time. So that was a long wait.”

Jeepers. And we thought Sean Foley was trying to lower Tiger’s spin rate.

Back to that “half the time” claim. At what point is a player “in the hunt” with nine holes to go at a major championship? Must he be within three shots of the lead? At a Masters, where we’ve seen so many fireworks from Amen Corner on, do you still have a chance if you’re four or five back?

We’re talking about an abstract and very subjective measure. A different scenario every time, depending on the course, conditions, scoring, the guy in the lead and how many players stand between you and that leader.

Astonishingly, Woods has played 16 consecutive weekend rounds at the majors without breaking 70, but that doesn’t mean he entered every Sunday without a chance.

Since falling to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA, Tiger has five top-five finishes in 13 major starts. Here is an extended look at Woods top post-Yang performances and an assessment whether he was truly in the hunt:

2012 British Open. Tied for third, four strokes behind Ernie Els and three behind Adam Scott, whose late collapse was the story. Woods’ losing battle with a front greenside bunker at the Lytham’s par-4 sixth led to a triple bogey and ended any serious thoughts of a winning charge. Three straight birdies on the back nine made for a nice run, but to say Red Shirt had a realistic chance down the stretch is a reach.

2013 Masters. Tied for fourth, four strokes out of a Scott-Angel Cabrera playoff. Tiger’s third shot Friday at the par-5 15th, which hit the flagstick and tumbled into the water and led to the infamous illegal drop, ultimately served as a convenient reason for his not being closer to the lead Sunday afternoon. Woods played the final 10 holes in 4 under, but six behind Cabrera at the turn? I wouldn’t call that much of a chance, given the multitude of scoring opportunities on Augusta National’s back nine.

2011 Masters. Tied for fourth, four back. A remarkable tournament in that so many guys were in the picture so late, and when you look at the ebb and flow of the final 90 minutes that day, Woods certainly had a chance with nine holes to play. He’d gone out earlier than most of the contenders and shot a front-nine 31 to become a legitimate contender, but an even-par back nine left him in the dust. High-end dust, but dust still the same.

2010 U.S. Open. Tied for fourth, three back. An obvious missed chance in that Woods closed with a 75 after a brilliant 66 Saturday. Paired in the second-to-last group at Pebble Beach with Gregory Havret, Tiger played the final 10 holes in 4 over – a big reason Graeme McDowell was able to win despite a Sunday 74. In contention? Yes. Draw your own conclusions from there.

2010 Masters. Tied for fourth, five back. Woods’ first major appearance after the blowup of his personal life was, in a sense, rather impressive. Again, Tiger was in the second-to-last group. He made a ton of noise after a lousy start Sunday, holing out for eagle at the par-4 seventh and carding another eagle at the par-5 15th, but from a wide-angle perspective, this was a two-man duel featuring Phil Mickelson, who beat Lee Westwood by three.

In final analysis, Woods can believe whatever he wants in terms of his career trajectory, recent performances at the majors and pursuit of Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. You can call him delusional, or a hammer-headed optimist. He has reasserted himself as perhaps the game’s best player in 2013, but when majors become the measure, discussions turn into arguments.

One thing that can’t be argued, however, is that Woods, at least publicly, has dramatically lowered his standards on the definition of excellence. Back when he was a skinny kid with a crude golf swing and a putter that rarely betrayed him, Tiger would tell you “second sucks” and refer to the runner-up spot in any tournament as “first loser.”

Times have changed. The swing has been refined several times, the lithe body stacked with muscle, and second doesn’t suck anymore. Neither does a tie for third or fourth. Woods says his five victories make this a great year despite a lack of major titles. It’s an attitude adjustment made out of convenience by a man who has never been good at handling failure, regardless of its form.

You take a step back. Clarity emerges. Maybe Tiger isn’t as tough as he once was. Maybe he just isn’t as good. Maybe he knows it, maybe he doesn’t. Optimism, confidence and performance are moving in strange directions, doing lots of funny things.

Kind of like that dog in the Nicklaus joke.