The WGC-Cadillac Championship is worldwide start No. 19 and counting since Tiger Woods last had a reason to celebrate on a Sunday. An unthinkable drought just, well 19 events ago, but times have changed no matter how hard we fight that reality.
“I don't know, man. I played for 10 years when that guy dominated, so it's tough to get a different mind-set on things,” said Ernie Els, who was Woods’ primary bridesmaid for all those years.
After only Woods, Els is likely the most flummoxed by Woods’ steady decline over the past 12 months or so. This is, after all, the same man who beat Els by more than two touchdowns at the 2000 U.S. Open, the man who matched him shot-for-shot at the 2000 Mercedes Championships, the man who ran him down at the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic.
If “Joe Three-Jack” has a hard time stomaching the title “world No. 5 Tiger Woods” imagine how that reality must weigh on Els, whose Hall-of-Fame career unfolded primarily into the headwind that was the Tiger era.
“For us, myself, Phil (Mickelson), Vijay (Singh), Davis (Love), Fred Couples, guys like that to have played under a guy who was that good, we took a beating, not only from him, but from you guys (media), too,” Els sighed. “It's been a tough – it was a tough 10, 12 years for us.”
Early Wednesday, Woods hoofed out into a steady south Florida breeze, the Achilles’ heel of Tiger 4.0. The playing lesson for the “lab rat,” as one scribe recently dubbed him, began at 8 a.m. complete with entourage: Sean Foley, Stevie Williams and a Nike Golf rep.
Good thing the latter was along for the windy ride, Woods needed the extra pellets particularly on Doral’s demanding 18th hole where he pulled one drive into the water left of the fairway and pushed another into the right rough. From the rough he pulled another ball into the deep blue – wash, rinse, repeat.
Foley is good for Woods, for his positive energy if not for his insight on the modern swing, but one couldn’t help but think the student would have been better off giving the teacher the morning off and rounding up a game with the likes of Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey. After nine holes watching Two Gloves’ action maybe Woods would conclude that it is time to play golf, not swing.
Instead, Woods marched from the 18th green to Doral’s practice tee. More work. More reps. He’s running out of time as the major clock ticks toward Augusta National. At best he has 10 Tour rounds, counting next week’s Tavistock Cup, between him and Magnolia Lane. Rumor on Tuesday at Doral was he was thinking of adding next week’s Transitions Championship to his dance card but on Wednesday that seemed less likely.
At the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship Woods said he may need “a million” swings for the changes to take, but he doesn’t have that kind of time. The 24-hour cycle won’t allow it. So what if Foley has been behind the camera for just 11 worldwide events, those with unrealistic expectations will conclude that those 18 majors aren’t going to win themselves.
“All of (his swing changes) have been challenging,” Woods said. “They’ve all been hard because changes to motor patterns take time.”
What is different this time is the golf public wants their Grande Americano now, not in 12 months.
On Wednesday Woods said “there is no timeline” for when he will move into his new south Florida castle – indications are that won’t happen before the Masters – but he could have said the same thing about his swing.
“I know what I can do, I just can’t do it on the golf course,” he said. “I’m not to that point yet, but I’ll get there.”
“I’ll get there” is not what the masses want to hear, not with Mickelson waiting on Thursday’s tee sheet and cries for Tiger v. Phil at Doral, Part Deux.
Woods and Foley continue to preach “process.” It’s about new motor patterns and new realities. Unlike his previous three swing changes, first with Butch Harmon and then with Hank Haney, Woods’ new world is about balance. The guy who willed himself to a U.S. Open title on one leg is now subject to the whims of a drastically altered life.
When asked on Wednesday why he hasn’t added to his schedule to help the process along, Woods’ response was telling. “I have a family. I'm divorced. If you've been divorced with kids, then you would understand,” Woods said.
From that new reality comes a golf world full of uncertainty. Woods no longer shows up at Doral with the field spotting him a stroke a side, at least not the New World Order.
“To see kind of the new world out there, you know, with these young players coming through, they have got something going for them,” Els reasoned. “They didn't have to play under a guy that was so dominant and I don't think they will ever appreciate how good Tiger was back then.
“He could do it again, who knows. . . . But at that level, who knows, I don't know.”
Only time will tell and that’s the one thing the world No. 5 does not have on his side right now.