Too Close to Call


For the better part of four months we’ve heard variations on a theme. The “how” and the “why” have changed with the landscape, but Tiger Woods has held firm to the notion that his game is close to where he wants it to be.

– On April 11 after rounds of 68-70-70-69 suggested that not even one of the nastiest scandals known to golf nor four months of competitive inactivity could keep Woods from doing what he does best: “I gave myself a chance. I didn't hit the ball very good this weekend, didn't putt well (on Saturday). I putted a little bit better today, which is good. But overall I gave myself a shot at it.”

– On April 30 at Quail Hollow reality hit like a 7-iron buried angrily in the turf when Woods missed his first cut since the 2009 Open Championship: “I didn't play well, and more importantly my short game wasn't very good. I chipped poorly, putted poorly, but for the most part I didn't really hit the ball that poorly until the end when it was already pretty much out of reach.”

– On Sunday at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial, following Woods’ injury-induced withdrawal from The Players and high-profile split with swing coach Hank Haney, he tied for 19th and gave this assessment: “Short game, chipping was streaky, I'd have to say. I hit some really sweet shots and hit some really bad ones. Just needs a little bit of work. But I really putted well this week, which is good. I had good speed.”

– Following an electrifying third-round at Pebble Beach, Woods couldn’t break par the rest of the week and finished off the front end of his “T-4 Slam:” “I feel like I can play now. I got a feel for my game, my shape of my shots, what I'm working on, and the two major championships I finished I had a chance to win both of them. So it's not too bad.”

– On the Fourth of July when he matched his quasi-host duties with a quasi-competitive tie for 46th: “I'm really excited. I've driven the ball better this week than I have in a very long time. It's fun to hit the driver that way. So it was nice to get back dialed in and obviously need to get my putter working a little bit better.”

– And most recently at the Open Championship, where he posted his worst finish (T-23) as a pro at St. Andrews: “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.”

Individually, each statement is a study in the power of positive thinking, if not profound optimism. Collectively the sound-bite potpourri paints a picture of a player looking for answers on the fly with perhaps a dollop of denial.

If Woods says he’s close, that’s good enough for us. He is, after all, the final arbiter of his game and his place in golf. The box score, however, describes a player who is closer to an early Playoff exit than he is to another Player of the Year trophy.

Competitively speaking, Woods’ 2010 has been historic for all the wrong reasons. He’s 107th in FedEx Cup points, whatever that might mean to him, 72nd in earnings, eighth on the Ryder Cup points list, tucked neatly between the likes of Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan, and is not among the top 10 in any major statistical category, that’s if he had enough reps to qualify for the Tour’s weekly ShotLink report.

By comparison, since his first full season on Tour in 1997 he’s never finished worst than fourth in earnings and never outside the top 3 in scoring average, the only statistic that really matters for a player who plays the circuit’s hardest venues almost exclusively.

Not to mention that for the man who has finely crafted a Hall of Fame career out of the simple mantra “second sucks,” Woods’ eclectic 2010 card has a Mendoza Line feel to it. Seven events into the “comeback II,” Woods has a pair of T-4s wrapped around an assortment of missed cuts, withdrawals and largely pedestrian showings.

This is as deep as Woods has been into a season without a victory since 1998 when he won in his ninth start and the second-longest drought to start a season in his career.

Woods’ putter has gotten most of the public blame. The famed Scotty Cameron was even benched, briefly, at the Open Championship, and his 1.78 average certainly fits the bill as public enemy No. 1.

But then Woods has finished T-26 (Open Championship), T-28 (AT&T National), T-47 (U.S. Open) and T-3 (Memorial) in putting average in his last four starts, not exactly “Boss of the Modern-Day Moss” stuff but he’s not Sergio Garcia, either, particularly for a guy who has won major championships on one leg, one cylinder and with one dimension.

Many of the frat brothers, those players and swing coaches who watch Woods the closest, agree with the world No. 1’s assessment that he’s close. One major champion told us at St. Andrews that he’s “this close (holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart) to 2000.” And one swing coach said, simply, that the swing looks “better.”

But then the end of a rocky 2010 road is fast approaching.

At most Woods likely has six mainland Tour starts remaining, assuming he cracks the top 30 in FedEx Cup points and earns a spot at East Lake for the Tour Championship, and with seven “Ws” in a decade of starts at Firestone and four PGA Championship titles Woods’ year could go from forlorn to unforgettable in the blur of an August fortnight.

But that depends on how “close” he really is to finding his game. And only Woods is qualified to answer that question.