The 10th anniversary of Tiger Woods’ last victory in a major championship will occur on the Saturday of this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Which makes it possible that the very next day will mark the first major championship of Woods’ next 10 years.
It would be quite a U-turn, although not even close to as logic-defying as the one that began Woods’ current drought.
The idea that Woods could start a decade-long winless streak in majors beginning at age 32 was once inconceivable, and remains disorienting. Ups and downs – mental and physical – are a natural part of competitive golf, yet no great player in the game’s history has ever experienced two sustained periods on such opposite ends of the fortune spectrum – back to back – like Woods.
Bobby Jones’ seven “lean” years followed by seven “fat” ones don’t compare, because the former began when Jones was 15. There was Ralph Guldahl, who won three majors from 1937-39, but after his 16th PGA Tour victory in 1940, when he turned 29, never won again. Johnny Miller followed three stellar years in which he seriously challenged Jack Nicklaus in his prime, with three lost ones during which he never contended. Tom Watson collected 36 tournament victories, including all eight of his majors, by age 35, then won only once in the next 12 years. David Duval reached No. 1 in 1999 and in 2001 won The Open Championship. Four months later, on his 30th birthday, he won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, his last victory to date.
Woods’ extremes have been longer and more eventful. Through 2009, he’d won 71 PGA Tour events, including 14 majors. Since then, he’s managed eight more victories, all in 2012 and 2013, and no better than a tie for third in a major.
Short of Woods sharing the real story, the causes of his fall will be debated forever. There were injuries, starting with the torn ACL that was surgically repaired only eight days after he miraculously limped to victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. That one might have triggered a kinetic chain reaction that led to his debilitating back problems of recent years.
There was the loss to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship, the first time in 15 tries Woods had failed to hold a 54-hole lead in a major. To some, Woods’ poor-putting final round of 75 irreparably punctured Woods’ aura of invulnerability.
And then there was the nuclear fallout from Thanksgiving night three months later. In a flash, Woods went from the athlete who expanded the boundaries of what was possible for a professional golfer to the ultimate test case of how far and fast a public figure can fall.
Ever since, the reasons for his inability to reach his former station have been mixed up in an ever-changing mystery stew of injury, swing changes, short-game issues, shame, self-medication and addiction therapy. Coping with it all has taken a visible toll on Woods, but the adversity also stimulated personal growth.
At 42, he is by most accounts friendlier to fans, more patient with media, a leader and mentor as an assistant captain for U.S. teams (he’ll serve as captain of the 2019 U.S. Presidents Cup team), a devoted father of two. On the course, his resolve in what must often be a maddening chase to recapture what once came so easily has proved him more of a golfer – as just another dogged victim – than he was in his prime.
Through it all, by measurables like gallery size, television ratings, water cooler talk, tweeting and texting, and brain space, we have continued to care. A lot.
For this, the reasons are clearer.
First, the Tiger Woods story is irresistible. The prodigy molded to believe in his special destiny, to great effect but with a delayed cost. The biracial outsider who rose to the top of a predominantly white game with an inner fury that seemed to bend events to his will. The student of its secrets who shaped himself into a player with unprecedented dimensions of power and touch. The hyper-entitled superstar who lost it all. The fallen man getting off the mat to regain what he can of his gift, but with a deeper perspective and appreciation.
The early ascension and steady stream of triumph was more comfortable to take in, but for those who see life as complex and imperfect, the story has only gotten better.
Second, humans are irresistibly drawn to talent and excellence. Tiger had so much of both that he changed the expectations of tournament golf from a sport in which even the best rarely win to one in which a special genius should always win. Woods gave many a vicarious thrill ride to the outer limits of human potential, and the memory of that history remains poignant. And to those who see in his comeback evidence that he may STILL have more game than anyone else, there is even more compelling history to be made. Either way, we really can’t lose.
Can Woods? It depends. If the measure of success is surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ career major total record – that before 2010 was widely considered a gimmie for Woods – then to many anything short will mean he failed in fully deploying his gift. Trying hard to avoid that ultimate judgment – perhaps in himself as well – has likely been a burden during Woods’ return.
But what if Woods takes the perspective that after so much loss there is really only gain? That getting to where he is in 2018 has been a triumph, and that especially since his successful back fusion surgery and the possible disaster that his DUI arrest averted, he’s playing with house money. For both the person and the player, such an epiphany could open floodgates.
As always, it’s hard to know where Woods is, only that his decade-long road has been arduous and the lessons hard earned. Here’s a selective look back at these 10 years since major win No. 14:
Five months after he won at Torrey Pines, Woods, his left leg still healing post-surgery, attended a Nike corporate outing in which he moderated a clinic while Anthony Kim hit shots.
Later, in a Q&A session, Woods revealed two lines he repeated dozens of times during the U.S. Open. To his trainer, Keith Kleven, who was tasked with manipulating the swelling and soreness out of the left knee, he said, “I hurt it. You fix it.” To his caddie, Steve Williams, the mantra was “Stevie, I’m going to win this tournament, I don’t give a s--- what you say.”
He also spoke with pride about how the military influences in his life had helped him play through the pain of his injury. “I grew up with a whole bunch of different military people – highly motivated people, and great people to be around. I saw the discipline side of it. I saw how to handle things. Whatever it is, you get the job done. Like my dad would explain to me, ‘Just because someone gets shot doesn’t mean he’s not effective. He can still operate. And just because you hit a bad shot doesn’t mean your whole round is over. You can still turn it around. You can still operate. You can still get it done.’”
At the same time, Woods acknowledged the good fortune he needed to overcome four double bogeys (three of them on his first hole of the day) during regulation, and almost shuddered at the long-shot risk he had taken with his body. “Really, there is no way I should have won,” he said. “Do I think about that a lot? Yeah … Yes.”
In hindsight, something was eating away at Woods. He won six times on the PGA Tour, and had his best year with the driver since 2000, and according to then-coach Hank Haney, was not devastated by his loss to Yang at the PGA. But his on-course behavior was worsening. In the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, Woods angrily bounced his driver off the turf. After a bad tee shot during the third round of the Australian Masters at Kingston Heath in November, which he would go on to win, Woods slammed his driver into the ground and watched it bounce into the gallery. He showed only minimal acknowledgement to the fan who returned the club.
Like many people, my first reaction to learning about Tiger’s SUV hitting the fire hydrant and the lurid headlines that followed was shock. All his career, Woods had seemed to be a careful manager of his off-course image, and the revelations of so much recklessness were jarring. But I wasn’t that surprised that Tiger had cracked. There had been a concern for a while that the type of abnormally enclosed existence he’d chosen in response to his enormous fame would take a toll. Now it had happened on a scale that seemed unimaginable.
A year that may go down as the most eventful of Woods’ career.
In the new book, “Tiger Woods,” by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, a chapter entitled “The Reckoning” examines the 45 days Woods spent in a sex addiction treatment program known as “Gratitude” in Hattiesburg, Miss. Woods was directed to take a hard look at his life, especially his childhood, for the sources of his problems.
“My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before,” Woods said during his famous blue curtain apology speech on Feb. 19, which lasted 13 minutes and was watched by an estimated 30 million television viewers.
Critics called the speech unconvincing, even fake. Woods was stiff and awkward as he read from sheets of paper, but I thought the cause was shame, not that he wasn’t being sincere. Regardless of the delivery, the words took a lot of courage to deliver.
This, in particular, made sense: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to,” Woods said. “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.”
Woods saying he was taking an “indefinite leave” from golf sounded like an extended period. So three weeks later, when he announced he was playing in the upcoming Masters, it felt too soon.
Woods did a pre-tournament news conference at Augusta. When asked how he would ward off the excesses of entitlement in the future, Woods said he was trying to recommit to some of the Buddhist principles his mother had impressed upon him as a boy. Then, with an impassive sadness, he concluded, “I just lost that, and unfortunately lost my life in the process.”
Woods had played no tournament golf since November, and according to Haney, he hit the ball poorly in his initial preparations. But he gradually improved, and considering the circumstances, would go on to produce one of the most remarkable performances of his career. He piped his pressure-filled opening drive, and shot what remains his lowest first round at the Masters, a 68. He was only three back when he began on Sunday, but started with a notable shakiness, going 3 over par through five holes to fall seven behind the leaders.
But a holed 8-iron on the par-4 seventh hole began a rally that saw him play the final 12 holes in 6 under. Over four rounds, he was alternately explosive and sloppy, making four eagles and 17 birdies, but also 14 bogeys. But his T-4 finish, five behind the winner, announced that Woods was far from finished.
Still, Woods did not possess the locked-in poise that had always characterized his final rounds while in contention at majors. A moment that lingers was the 15-inch putt he missed on the 14th. It came after he badly pushed a 6-foot birdie putt that would have gotten him within two of the leader. On the little comebacker, Woods didn’t take a full stance, but missed more nervously than carelessly. Considering the situation, it was telling.
The theme continued at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Woods shot a brilliant third-round 66 that got him into third place going into the final round. But on a frustrating Sunday, Woods didn’t fire. He bogeyed the first, fourth and sixth holes, all among the easiest at Pebble, and shot 75 to finish T-4, three behind. It was another example of a new fragility. Throughout his comeback post-scandal, weekends at majors have remained a problem.
In the final event of the year, the unofficial but high-profile Chevron World Challenge, Woods began the final day with a four-stroke lead, but Graeme McDowell would keep Woods from his first victory of his comeback by holing a 20-footer on the 72nd to get into a playoff, and then a 25-footer on the first extra hole to win. It was the first time Woods had lost a tournament when leading by three or more shots going into the last round, and a fitting end to the most difficult year of his career.
At the Masters that Woods recently said is the major he most regrets losing, Woods followed an explosive 66 on Friday with a disappointing 74. He came out smoking in the final round, shooting 31 on the front to momentarily tie for the lead. But on the short 12th Woods ran a 25-footer 3 feet by and pulled the return for a killing bogey. He then failed to birdie 13 with only 180 yards in for his second shot, and missed a 4-foot eagle putt on the 15th. He finished four behind for another T-4.
It was a down year that ended with hope at the Chevron World Challenge, where, one down to Zach Johnson with two to play, he birdied 17 and 18 to win his first event since 2009.
That momentum, however, was quashed at Abu Dhabi, where, starting the final day tied for the lead with Robert Rock, Woods was outplayed by the journeyman (70 to 72) and finished third. Then at Pebble Beach, Woods began the final day tied with Phil Mickelson in the second-to-last group, the kind of scenario Woods would use as an opportunity to reinforce his superiority. Instead, Mickelson shot a winning 64 to Tiger’s incongruous 75.
Woods’ reputation among his peers as the consummate finisher began to erode. Some said privately that the existence of a new fragility was most reinforced by the knowledge that Woods had given in to weakness and poor judgment in his private life.
But Woods regained some stature with the first official Tour victory of his comeback, at Bay Hill. After finishing T-40 at the Masters, he made up a four-stroke lead on Sunday at the Memorial, highlighted by a spectacular chip-in for birdie on the 70th hole, to win again. He again looked ready for the next major, the U.S. Open, but after being tied for the lead after 36 holes at Olympic, he shot 75-73 on the weekend to finish T-21.
In his next outing, he won the AT&T National as the host. Three weeks later at The Open Championship at Royal Lytham, Woods began the final round in fourth place at 6 under par on a day the winning score would be 7 under. Woods triple bogeyed the sixth, and after fighting back, bogeyed the 15th and 16th to shoot a 3-over-par 73 and finish T-3, which remains his best finish in a major since losing to Yang.
His game improving dramatically and reasonably free of injury, Woods won three early tournaments at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill.
He went to the Masters as the favorite and eager to finally get major No. 15.
Woods was tied for the lead on Friday when he came to the par-5 15th. After laying up, his wedge-shot third hit the bottom of the pin and rebounded into the water. It was one of the most untimely and unluckiest breaks of Woods’ career. Compounding it, Woods dropped in the wrong place before hitting his next shot, ultimately signing for an incorrect score on his scorecard. After deciding not to disqualify Woods, the Masters committee assessed Woods an 8 instead of a 6 on the 15th. After arguably losing 4 strokes than he would have if the pin hadn’t gotten in the way, Woods again finished T-4, four strokes behind.
Woods would go on to win The Players, his most impressive victory of his post-scandal period, and later in the year, the WGC-Bridgestone by seven, shooting a second-round 61. He hasn’t won since.
At The Open Championship at Muirfield, Woods continued his major pattern by beginning the final day two out of the lead, but shooting 74 to finish T-6.
Woods reached No. 1 in the world again and was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year. But in a foreshadowing of bad karma, at the year-ending World Challenge, Zach Johnson overcame Woods’ four-shot lead with eight to play, then miraculously holed a 58-yard wedge shot on the 72nd hole after hitting his second in the water. Woods got up and down from a bunker to force sudden death, but quickly bogeyed to lose the playoff.
Bad from the beginning. Bothered by the most serious back pain of his life, Woods in late March underwent surgery for a damaged disc that was pressing on a nerve in his lower spine. He would miss the Masters and the U.S. Open, and after a too-fast return to competition, ended the season by missing the cut at the PGA.
When he returned to play at the Hero World Challenge in December, he was beset by a bout of terrible chipping during a first-round 77.
Woods’ chip yips got worse. At the Phoenix Open, he shot a second-round 82 in which his short game misses were so extreme as to seem surreal. Woods said that he was “caught between” different “release patterns” taught by old coach Sean Foley and new “swing consultant” Chris Como.
The bad chipping continued in the first round at the Farmers, where Woods withdrew after 11 holes because of a tight back. “My glutes are shutting off. They don’t activate,” he said in a comment that was widely mocked as many wondered if Woods’ short-game problems could be career ending.
On Feb. 11, he took a leave from tournament golf. On his website, he said, “My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf.”
When Woods returned at the Masters, the golf world held its breath for what the notoriously tight chipping areas would do to his short game. But remarkably, Woods was solid around the greens, finishing T-17.
But it proved only a brief respite. Woods shot 85 in the third round of the Memorial. At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, his opening 80 ended with an embarrassing cold-topped 3-wood that rolled into a bunker. He also missed the cut at The Open and the PGA.
But at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, on friendly Sedgefield CC, Woods got into contention. After rounds of 64-65-68, Woods started the final day two strokes out of the lead. He was still within a couple on the 11th, but then a bladed chip skittered across the green, followed by another chunk and a triple bogey. He birdied four holes after that to salvage a 70 to finish T-10.
A month later, Woods underwent a second microdiscectomy, followed by a further procedure in October.
At his World Challenge in the Bahamas, where he hosted but didn’t play, a clearly discouraged Woods reflected on his career accomplishments with a tone of resignation, at one point saying, “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”
Woods was absent from competition for 11 months. In May, at a media day for the AT&T National that aired on Golf Channel, Woods tried a 102-yard wedge shot as part of a ceremony and hit three successive balls short and into the water. As he addressed his third attempt, microphones picked up him saying softly, “C’mon Tiger.”
In December, Woods played in his own tournament in the Bahamas. He made 24 birdies, but also six double bogeys while finishing 15th in the 18-man field.
Ambitiously, Woods announced an early season schedule of four tournament appearances in five weeks. But after he missed the cut at Torrey Pines and withdrew with back spasms in Abu Dhabi, he shut it down.
Attending the Champions Dinner at the Masters but not playing, Woods confided to Jack Nicklaus and others that he was not doing well. On April 20, he underwent spinal fusion surgery, a last-ditch attempt to reduce his nerve pain, by all accounts as much for quality of life as for a continuing golf career.
Like a magic bullet, Woods experienced instant pain relief and little if any loss in mobility. “I haven’t felt this good in years,” he said.
But on May 30, the narrative changed when Woods was found asleep in a car near his home in Jupiter, Fla. He failed a field sobriety test and was arrested. According to the police toxicology report, Woods had five different drugs – four prescriptions and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana – in his body at the time. Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist who turned his own life around after a DUI arrest, said he believed Woods’ actions were “a massive scream for help.”
On June 19, Woods announced he was seeking professional help to manage medications. While there are indications Woods was not fully ready to absorb the lessons of the “Gratitude” program he attended in 2010, others who know Woods say the lessons took more strongly this time, and have been a blessing.
Woods’ reception in September at the Presidents Cup, where he served as a vice captain under Steve Stricker, was warm. Woods learned the full extent of the support he has from his fellow players. And his treatment by fans showed no trace of public shaming.
On Oct. 16, he was cleared by doctors for full physical activity. When he came back to the Hero World Challenge to play in December, he said, “I’m loving life now. I’ve come out the other side and I feel fantastic.”
The good vibes, in concert with his healed body, helped Woods display a style of youthful power golf most observers thought they’d never see from him again. A rusty Woods finished ninth, but the buzz after the Hero was like Tigermania II.
It’s been a fascinating year.
At times, Woods has looked capable of again becoming the world’s best player. But the evidence also indicates he’s still competitively fragile, though on an upward curve. His current battle is to be softer in life, but as hard as he used to be in golf.
Judging by the Masters, where he finished T-32, peaking his game for majors is still a problem.
Jack Nicklaus, who has long had a keenly intuitive understanding of Woods the golfer, sees important progress, with more work to be done. “I don’t think Tiger’s had a lot of fun the last 10 years,” Nicklaus said at the Memorial, where Woods’ putter betrayed some impressive ball striking as he finished T-23. “I would hate to have been through what he’s been through.
“I think that he’ll win when he believes it himself between the ears,” he continued. “But he has got to get through the barrier of not having done it for a while.”
And then Nicklaus expressed a view that has been harder to hold as the difficult years have gone by, but which becomes meaningful because he chose to say it in 2018. “I never counted him out,” Nicklaus said. “Yeah, I think he’ll win majors again. If Tiger comes back and plays I still think he’s got a shot at breaking my record.”
Even the greatest who ever lived – maybe especially the greatest who ever lived – isn’t immune to the Woods Effect. It starts with the certainty Woods will always fight, followed by the notion based on some epic accomplishments that he will continue to fight until somehow, the mission gets done. That Woods has gotten this far from where he was is the best evidence that gear is still there.
Surely it’s too much to expect, but maybe yet another U-turn will begin at Shinnecock.