KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – On the long walk back to the 13th tee, it’s virtually impossible to not steal a glance at the massive white leaderboard to the left. All the contenders were up there in black, bold-faced letters – MCILROY, PETTERSSON, POULTER, SCOTT, ROSE. And on the second-to-last rung, the seventh of eight names, was Tiger Woods.
A red 1: his score Sunday through 12 holes.
A red 3: his score through 66 holes.
Seven shots back at the time, his score was the highest of those still on the board, left there as perhaps a courtesy to inquiring fans. But instead it served to illustrate the obvious: It was another stalled weekend for Woods.
And another lost year in the majors.
His even-par 72 Sunday in the PGA Championship kept alive one of the most unfathomable streaks of 2012: Not once in eight tries this season did he break par in a weekend round in a major. Woods finished this PGA in a tie for 11th at 2-under 286 – a distant 11 strokes behind winner Rory McIlroy.
In the past, we were compelled to watch Woods because it was a chance to witness history. These days, it seems, we watch because we’re intrigued. We watch because we don’t know which Tiger will show up: the guy who surgically maneuvered his way around the Ocean Course on Friday, or the guy who (on the easiest stretch of the course) made four bogeys in an eight-hole span Saturday to fall off the pace.
Not even Woods himself is quite sure anymore. Asked to explain another weekend slide, Woods offered a curious response: “I was trying to enjoy it – enjoy the process of it. But that’s not how I play. I play full-systems-go, all-out, intense, and that’s how I won 14 of these things.”
Enjoy? The pursuit of a major championship? It’s like the Terminator stopping to pose for pictures with civilians.
Arguably the most cutthroat competitor the game has ever seen – back in the day, Woods epitomized the phrase “step on their necks” – and arguably the most dominant closer in the sport’s history, conceded Sunday that during the third round he was trying to be “a little bit happy out there.”
On Saturday afternoon, on both the range and the course, Woods was seen chitchatting with fellow playing competitor Vijay Singh – an old and sometimes contentious rival – as if they were former frat brothers at a class reunion. It made no sense, until now.
It still doesn’t.
Pressed why he would change his approach – intentionally – after being so successful in this position in the past, Woods could only shake his head and say, “I don’t know. It was a bad move on my part.”
When he returns to Augusta National in April, he’ll be 37 years old and winless in his past 14 majors, the longest drought of his professional career. He’ll be 37 with a left knee that’s been operated on four times, with the psychological strain of two decades in the spotlight, with the mounting pressure that maybe, just maybe, time is running out on his pursuit to finally catch Jack Nicklaus.
Woods managed to go 0-for-4 this major season in myriad ways. Not once in four rounds did he break par at Augusta National, for years his personal playground. Two months later, at the U.S. Open, he held a share of the 36-hole lead, then shot 148 on the weekend to tumble down the leaderboard. At the British Open, he once again found himself in contention, but never diverged from his conservative game plan, even when the leaders began to pull away. Eventually, he finished T-3, his best finish in a major in nearly three years.
“The thing is to keep putting myself there,” Woods said. “I’m not going to win them all, and I haven’t won them all. But the key is putting myself there each and every time, and you know, I’ll start getting them again.”
This, however, represented as good a chance as any.
He had a piece of the 36-hole lead. He was only five back at the start of the final round, not an insurmountable deficit in this, the Year of the Meltdown. But the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island – dubbed by one prominent golf magazine as the hardest course in America – severely punishes those who stray off the fairway. So it was that late Sunday afternoon, when Woods needed to pile up birdies, post a low number and pray, two errant shots effectively ended his slim chances to contend.
Twice on the back nine he mingled amongst the red-faced and sweat-soaked spectators. On the par-4 10th, his drive sailed so far left, his ball came to rest on a sandy pathway near a garbage disposal. You could smell the hamburgers. Heck, he was so close to the concession stand, he probably could have grabbed one, too.
Such a scene was thrown into sharp relief with what we witnessed Friday from Woods: a 71 in wind-swept conditions, a ball-striking clinic, a round so spectacular that it prompted young Keegan Bradley to gush that it was one of the best rounds he’s seen. Ever.
Then Saturday came, and much like this year’s U.S. Open, Woods faded fast. (His third-round scoring average in the majors: 72.75.) Whatever the reason – he was uncomfortable with his revamped swing, he misread the Paspalum greens, he was too relaxed at Kiawah – he played the first eight holes in 4 over par, and never again was a factor. That slide prompted one wise guy in the crowd to quip that, these days, Woods takes more weekends off than a stock broker.
Now, we’ve gone more than four years and 14 majors without seeing the most prolific winner of this generation hoist one of golf’s most important trophies. The task only figures to get more arduous now, after weighing such factors as his age (37 in December), his injury history (knee and Achilles issues) and his rapidly rising challengers (impressed by McIlroy, anyone?).
In the past two years, under the guidance of coach Sean Foley, Woods has been refashioned as a punishing ball-striker. That is good enough to put him in contention most weeks – let’s not forget, for his four major flameouts, he’s still won three times this season on the PGA Tour – but even machines occasionally malfunction. A tidy short game has proved just as important.
And it is those instances when Woods “marries the two together,” as he said he did in Friday’s second round, when he is at the height of his powers. Problem is, that marriage is occurring with less frequency now. The streaky putter either slays or saves him.
Perhaps it’s no small coincidence, then, that here through two rounds, when he held a share of the 36-hole lead, he required only 48 swipes with the putter. (Said Woods, “The first couple of days, every putt just seemed easy.”) Over the weekend, he needed 60 putts when apparently his focus was elsewhere, on employing a cheery disposition.
Only on Saturday afternoon, during a weather delay, did Woods realize that his bizarre plan to soak up the moment had backfired.
It’s too bad. By then, his 2012 major season had already been lost.