Tiger Not Out of the Woods Yet

Last week’s Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, California might have been as intriguing of a golf tournament as you could ever wish for in January. While viewers across the country bundled up inside preparing for blizzards and ice storms, the PGA Tour was holding a star-studded event at Torrey Pines. The main player everyone wanted to see was none other than Tiger Woods who was making his 2011 debut after a tumultuous 2010 on and off the course.

Tiger has undoubtedly paid the price for his infidelity and now he is at a point where he is trying to regain the good favor of his millions of fans while at the same time trying to return to the once-dominant form he had on the links. Yet Tiger’s profile has changed so much that it’s starting to show with his performance on the golf course.

Throughout the first ten plus years of Tiger’s professional golfing career before the fallout of late 2009, Tiger was bold, untouchable, captivating, and inspiring. Yet the super-exclusive wall that he built around himself throughout his life has come tumbling down piece by piece. Now Woods seems vulnerable, unsure, inconsistent, and exposed.

When he announced early last year that he would return for the Masters, golf fans couldn’t wait to see how he would respond. There’s no doubt that Tiger’s performance at the 2010 Masters was impressive. He clearly didn’t play up to his standards and he still finished 4th.

In the US Open in June he had another great tournament. Late Saturday evening in the third round, the world thought that Tiger was finding his old magic when he finished with a flurry to card a 66 at Pebble Beach, the site of his 15 shot victory in the 2000 US Open. Yet his final round was very unspectacular, carding a 75. He seemed erratic and didn’t possess that same intimidating energy that he has used as one of his greatest weapons against opponents on the final day of a major.

Not only did Tiger not win during the 2010 season, he didn’t even have a top ten in an official PGA Tour event besides those two majors. He failed to make the cut in the Wells Fargo Championship while carding a mind-blowing 43 on the back nine of the second round. He withdrew from the Players Championship on the final day and finished 18 over par in the 2010 Bridgestone Invitational, 30 strokes behind winner Hunter Mahan.

The most telling sign of Tiger’s fall from dominance might have been the Chevron World Challenge in December. He entered the final round with a four stroke lead. With the old Tiger Woods you could’ve bet the house and everything in it that he would finish off the tournament. Yet Graeme McDowell, the only golfer in striking distance and also the 2010 US Open winner, eyed down Tiger on Sunday.

The two were tied on the final hole of regulation when Woods stuck a 7 iron to three feet and gave viewers that first genuine and enthusiastic fist pump from the fairway that we have been so desperately missing. McDowell, who seemed all but defeated, hit a lack-luster approach shot to about 20 feet. Yet McDowell rolled in that birdie putt to force a playoff and then made a birdie putt from a similar length on the first playoff hole to cap off an amazing season while giving Tiger a heart-breaking finish to his worst year in professional golf.

This is why I think Tiger will struggle to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s career record of 18 majors, a record that once looked like Tiger would zoom past to set some astronomical number that would never be touched. He needs five more major championships to pass Nicklaus which he said from the beginning was his top goal. Yet McDowell showed how golfers aren’t intimidated by Woods like they used to be.

All of Tiger’s 14 majors have come when he was leading going into the last day. There was just something about his presence on a Sunday afternoon in a major that seemed to almost scare other world class golfers. The bright red shirt with black pants, the thunderous fist pumps, and the eyes that could stare through an opponent’s soul are what made his competition fold in the final round heat. Tiger played smart golf in these final rounds, hitting the healthy parts of greens and making birdies on par 5’s. However now Woods seems revealed and wounded. He can’t give that same intimidating glare because the person he is staring at knows his embarrassing past and realizes he wasn’t the man we all thought he was.

Maybe golfers used to envy Tiger, his talent, his money, his fame, and his confidence. Yet Tiger has now been stripped of many of the things that made him the larger-than-life figure that he is or was. Now you have to imagine that it’s heart-wrenching for Tiger to glance across the scoring tent after a round to see a golfer embracing his wife and hugging his kids. The pedestal that Woods built himself up on has come crumbling down to the ground and he is still trying to find solid footing in all of the rubbish.

I’ve played competitive golf for six years and I know what the game can do to a person’s mind state. It’s a sport that could make a perfectly sane man end up sitting Indian style talking to a shrink. The battles of frustration and a steady state of confidence plague everyone that has ever picked up a golf club. Yet for the first 12 years of Tiger Woods’ career, he seemed to be immune to these struggles. He never once lost confidence in himself and he never once seemed to not come up with his absolute best shot in the most key, pressure-packed situation.

Once again though, this is a different Tiger Woods. He has shown some serious mental mistakes and lapses in concentration since his return to professional golf last April. Last week’s Farmers Insurance Open was a great example. He played the first 27 holes without a single bogey. He was in total control of his golf ball and looked like he was on the verge of starting the 2011 season with familiar dominance of the past. Yet he hit a rough stretch, bogeying three out of five holes on his back nine Friday. You could tell that his shoulders were starting to droop a little more, he seemed to be breathing a little harder out of his nose, and his eyes weren’t as focused as usual.

Bad stretches like that are totally normal in the great game of golf, trust me I would know. But not to Tiger Woods right? Not only did he not recover, he back-peddled the whole weekend while Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson were making birdies down the stretch. Woods finished one under par, tied for 44th and 15 shots off the winning total.

Who knows how Tiger will react the next time he is contending for a major late on a Sunday afternoon. He is and always will be the most dominant athlete I will ever see in my lifetime; I have no doubt about it. Yet even Tiger Woods would surprise me if he can put all of the personal problems of the last few years behind him to become the world’s top golfer once again and pass Jack Nicklaus for the all-time majors mark. Yet if there is one thing I’ve learned from watching Tiger Woods over the past 15 years is to never underestimate him or doubt his ability. I would love to see him become the great icon that I grew up admiring once again.

One day, sooner or later, he will probably find is golf game that has seemed to escape him over the past year. His pride, dignity, and happy family life however, might never return.

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