A year ago it would have been ridiculous to think the Tiger Dynasty would crumble so quickly. Woods’ personal issues obviously have a lot to do with his decline, but in talking with people close to Woods, veteran Tour pros and other knowledgeable sources in 2010, one gets the sense there is more to his lackluster play than the demise of his marriage or the dents to his public image.
“You know how much time he spent working on his putting at the Masters?” says a reliable observer. “Twenty minutes.”
No question, Tiger’s work habits have changed over the years, at least in terms of how much time he spends at a tournament site before and after rounds. Prior to 2004, for instance, he would almost always hit balls after playing, sometimes for a while. At the ’05 U.S. Open, Woods spent the better part of 90 minutes on Pinehurst’s massive practice green – caddie Steve Williams jumped all over me a few days later for asking Sir Eldrick a few questions while he stroked 15-footers.
Williams himself would tell me about the night before the 2000 U.S. Open, when Woods putted until dark on the Pebble Beach Poa annua, not because he couldn’t make anything, but because he didn’t like the way those putts were going in. In recent years, it was assumed Tiger was working on his game at an off-site location to avoid the constant commotion he deals with at Tour events, but when the adultery avalanche began crashing down on him, it became clear he was eating, sleeping and breathing something other than golf.
It raises a legitimate question: Does Woods still want to dominate pro golf? One can understand how his desire and competitive fury might wane as he nears his 35th birthday, how his priorities have changed, especially considering the off-course problems that have forced him to conduct a personal inventory. Tiger addressed these issues in a self-authored essay that appears in the latest issue of Newsweek, an article entitled, “How I’ve redefined victory.”
Talk about interesting headlines. “Slowly, I’m regaining the balance that I lost,” Woods writes. “My healing process is far from complete, but I am beginning to appreciate things I had overlooked before. I’m learning that some victories can mean smiles, not trophies, and that life’s most ordinary events can bring joy.”
Like much of what Tiger has shared with the public over the last year, his words seem heartfelt and sincere. A cynic could easily surmise that Woods has found a way to rationalize his winless season, but it’s his life, not yours or mine. Finding balance can be a tricky task. Especially when you’ve won and lost to a degree most would consider extreme.
Back to the golf. Woods ranked 167th on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation in 2010, a startling number for a guy who had fallen outside the top 30 just once in his career – he was 47th in 2004. We can talk all we want about his erratic driving of the ball, but when you’re in the bottom 20 percent in GIRs, you need to make three or four tons of putts to camouflage the weakness, and Tiger hasn’t done that in a while.
He’s still better than anyone else, still the most proven player by far under competitive duress, but 13 years is a long, long time to dominate any sport. Tiger’s best golf may be behind him, but he is still capable of winning three or four tournaments a year even if his head isn’t totally clear. As for 19, the magic number, the only number that really matters, Woods’ climb up Mount Nicklaus has hit a few snags. It’s nothing he can’t handle but something he must come to terms with.