ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – So, a couple bits of Tiger Woods news to share. First, Woods did not make the cut for the new EA Sports Rory McIlroy PGA Tour game, which is being unveiled this week at St. Andrews. You will note that the game used to be called “Tiger Woods PGA Tour” but that was before he and EA Sports split up a couple of years ago. And it also was before he dropped to 241st in the world.
But the point here is not that the game is no longer named for him – he’s nowhere to be found inside the game. You can play with 12 real world golfers (Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth among them), but not with Tiger Woods. The company said they only looked at players in the top 100. The last edition of the game included legends like Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan and even Young Tom Morris. There are no legends on the game this year. There is no Tiger Woods.
The other piece of of news? Well, Tiger Woods believes he can win the Open Championship here at the home of golf.
“Absolutely,” he says. And he adds: “I’m hitting the ball much, much more solidly.”
OK, no, it’s not really news that Tiger is talking about winning, about feeling healthy, about hitting the ball way better, about “getting his feels back.” That has been more or less a constant refrain for a couple of years now, along with some, well, let’s call them rose-colored memories.
Woods memory: “I hit the ball great at Greenbrier … and as bad as I putted that week, I was only four shots out of a playoff.”
Actuality: Well, to be exact, six shots out of a four-way playoff. And in a five-way tie for 32nd place.
Woods memory: “You know, I had some pretty apparent flaws in my technique. That's one of the reasons why I shut it down after Torrey and Pebble and consequently I was able to turn things around, and I had a chance to win the Masters this year.”
Actuality: Woods was nine shots off the lead the first day at Augusta, 12 shots off the lead after the second round, 10 shots off the lead going into Sunday, and he finished 13 shots back. So, you know …
Woods memory: “(At Greenbrier) I hit the ball the best I’ve hit it in probably two years. … It was the first time I’ve led proximity to the hole with my iron play in I don’t know how many years. So that was a very good sign.”
Actuality: Well, it certainly IS a good sign that Tiger Woods led the field in that somewhat obscure “proximity to the hole” stat and it’s a good sign he is hitting his irons closer. But how good is it really? According to the PGA Tour, here are the leaders in “proximity to the hole” the last few PGA Tour events:
- John Deere: Tom Gillis and Danny Lee (tied for third in the tournament)
- Greenbrier Classic: Tiger Woods (tied for 32nd)
- Travelers Championship: Tom Hoge (tied for 64th)
- FedEx St. Jude Classic: Jason Gore (tied for 29th)
- The Memorial: Russell Knox (tied for 18th)
- AT&T Byron Nelson Classic: Vijay Singh (tied for 39th)
So, maybe it’s not THAT good a sign.
This, though, is how Tiger Woods’ mind seems to work. He craves positivity. He hungers for good signs, even when they are hard to see. There’s an image we build of many of the world’s most dominant athletes – Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Albert Pujols, Serena Williams – that they feed off negativity and are fueled by doubters. It’s probably true for many of them.
But it seems to me that, no matter how much people try to build him up that way, Tiger Woods is not like that at all. He does not get pumped up on doubts. He does not play to prove people wrong. He feeds on good feelings. He is driven by optimism and certainty and what was once an unshakeable confidence that the putt was going in. There’s a great story about him from a few years ago: He was playing in an American Express sponsored exhibition with some fans at Oakmont. Someone asked if he would hit a shot out of the Church Pews bunker. Woods refused.
“Will you teach us how to do it?” someone else asked.
“Hit it over there,” Woods said, pointing toward the fairway.
Some people laughed, but he was not joking. The bunker was a negative. Tiger Woods won 14 major championships and played golf at a level no one had ever reached in part because he did not let negatives into mind. He knew he was the best. His opponents knew he was the best. The fans knew he was the best. He lived inside a cocoon of conviction, and bunkers had no place inside that cocoon. When he won at St. Andrews in 2000, shooting 19 under and winning by eight shots, he did not hit a golf ball into a bunker all week.
So while it has been alternately comical and poignant listening to Tiger Woods try to make happy news of his decline – with weekly repetitions of “I’m not far off,” and “I made progress,” and “I hit it better but just didn’t make any putts” – it is also perfectly in line with the attitude of the young Tiger Woods. He never felt like he was out of a tournament. He always felt like, in the end, he would win. This is how he is wired. He still believes that good things will happen.
“I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done,” Woods said with a little smile. “But I’m still right here in front of you.”
Will good things finally happen for Tiger Woods? Well, this is the week to find out. He finally has everything pointing in at least an optimistic direction. He seems to actually be healthy and feeling good. While it’s easy to overstate how well he played at Greenbrier compared with other professionals, he did finish off with his first bogey-free round in almost two years. And this is legendary St. Andrews, a place where, more often than not, legends win. Jack Nicklaus won twice at St. Andrews, Nick Faldo won here, Sam Snead won here, Seve Ballesteros won here. And, of course, Woods won here twice.
Also: The Open Championship bows to experience in a way that the other major championships do not. In the last 10 years, no 40-year-old has won the Masters, U.S. Open or PGA Championship. But three 40-somethings have won the Open Championship (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson) and Tom Watson almost won it at age 59. Tiger’s not 40 yet (he turns 40 in December) but his golfing body is much older than 40. Perhaps there’s something about the wind and the bad bounces and ever-changing weather patterns that evens things up and offers older and more experienced a fighting chance.
Whatever the case: This is about as good a chance as Woods is likely to have for a while. Maybe the stars really are aligning. Odds on Woods are dropping in British betting parlors – BetFair, for instance, has him as a better bet than four of the world’s top-10 players, including No. 3 Bubba Watson. Several people, including Hall of Famer Colin Montgomerie and golf-loving comedian Norm Macdonald, have come out this week to say Woods can win.
And, of course, we know where Tiger Woods stands on the subject.
“Retirement?” he said incredulously when asked if, at his worst moment, he considered giving the game up. “I don’t have my AARP card yet, so I’m a ways from that. … I’m still young. I’m not 40 yet. … I’m hitting it well. I’m ready. I’m excited.”
Well, he’s been ready and excited before. Now Woods needs to go out there and actually play well and get himself into contention. And he has to do it for real because Woods is no longer an option on a video game.