Elling: Tiger’s fall leaves him next to last at Firestone

Aug 8th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

AKRON, Ohio — Looking more relieved than exasperated, Tiger Woods removed his golf cap, changed out of his spikes and into comfortable tennis shoes, then hopped into his Lexus SUV.

It was 11:15 a.m. and his day at Firestone Country Club, a place where he essentially holds the mortgage after winning a PGA Tour-record seven times in the past, was already complete. The leaders would not be finishing for another seven hours.

He uneventfully backed out of his parking slot, gripped the steering wheel and piloted the vehicle out of the lot without plowing into anything — symbolically representing his best drive of the week, not to mention his smoothest escape.

Talk about symmetry. Woods’ fall from grace, which began last November when he crashed into a tree, now mirrors his painfully erratic play on the golf course, where he spent the week clanging shots into towering oaks to finish the Bridgestone Invitational in a career-worst 78th place, one slim spot out of dead last.

After claiming progress in his past two events, Woods was in full reverse at Firestone. On a course where he had won his past four starts, he failed to break par in any of his four rounds and finished with a 7-over 77, matching his highest score relative to par as a pro on American soil. His personal life in energy-sapping tatters, he’s now at rock bottom with a club in his hand, too.

Which is in worse shape, his personal or professional life? More than at any point since Thanksgiving, it’s impossible to separate the two. Plane crash, meet trainwreck.

Woods is set to play in the season’s final major starting Thursday at Whistling Straits in rural Wisconsin, a brutal course alongside windy Lake Michigan. You could almost hear the engines on his G5 jet revving in the distance as he bailed out of Firestone and prepared to head north.

Given the sloppy exhibition of the past four days, gallows humor ruled. He planned to put his unscheduled afternoon off to good use.

“No, not tomorrow, I’m out there today,” he said of his travel and practice plans. “I could probably play 18 and still watch the guys finish [here].”

Good line — and certainly not what anybody imagined they would hear at a venue where he had never finished worse than fourth.

“He’s obviously going through tough stretches because his personal life has hurt his golf game,” said Anthony Kim, who played alongside Woods on Sunday. “It’s obviously not where he wants to be. But he’s a tough guy. He’s the most mentally tough guy you’re going to meet, and I think he’ll be fine.

“It’s just a matter of time before golf becomes a priority to him again and he starts grinding and he starts winning golf tournaments.”

If Kim’s first-blush analysis is accurate, it’s hard to imagine why golf isn’t a priority for Woods already. The quickest way for him to rehab his image would be to reel off a win or two, but he’s headed in completely the other direction, and Phil Mickelson had a chance to supplant him as world No. 1 if he finished fourth or better Sunday afternoon.

After the round, Woods looked as deflated, crestfallen, exhausted and downcast as anybody can recall seeing him, as a pro or amateur. He was the guy cleaning up after the horses in the parade, the caboose on the tournament train, and there’s no indication there are brighter horizons coming.

Woods said the game, once his refuge from the travails of his personal life, has become nearly as embarrassing and insufferable. Rightly so, pundits and analysts are beginning to openly question whether he can rebuild his rep, whether he is permanently damaged goods at age 34.

“Shooting 18 over par is not fun,” he said. “I don’t see how it can be fun shooting 18 over, especially since my handicap is supposed to be zero.”

Instead, zero is what he brought to the course this week. The driver was awful, his putting has reached a new nadir and his iron game was nothing special. He seemed to be playing with somebody else’s 14 clubs.

“The only thing I can say all week is I was patient, and unfortunately that’s not enough,” he said.

Not nearly or remotely. People interpreted it as passivity or a lack of application. Kim said he overheard a fan talking about how Woods was mailing it in, half-interested, going through the motions Sunday. Kim felt otherwise.

“I heard someone say he’s throwing in the towel,” Kim said. “There’s just something about golf where you just have to let go to play better sometimes. People can say he threw in the towel, but that’s just not the case.

“He’s trying to find something. I know he’s not driving the ball well. But he’s definitely giving it all he’s got. It’s just not there.”

He might not be there at the Ryder Cup, either. The media has been trying all week to gauge his interest in the overseas event, where Woods would almost surely face some catcalls. At this point, he isn’t going to make the list of eight automatic picks, which locks up Sunday, and would need to be selected by captain Corey Pavin.

In a matter of four shockingly sloppy days at Firestone, the discussion has turned from whether Woods would consider an invitation as a captain’s pick to whether he deserves to be in the conversation at all. When I flatly asked Woods if he wants to play in the Ryder, he didn’t mince words for once.

“Not playing like this, definitely not, not playing like this,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t help the team if I’m playing like this. No one would help the team if they’re shooting 18 over par.”

Unimaginably, Woods said he wasn’t shocked that he played so poorly, given the extracurricular pressures he brought upon himself as a result of the sex scandal, even though he professed to having seen progress in his game just four days earlier.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all, actually,” he said.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the ramifications of that statement.

More than anything he has said all year, that ought to indicate his state of mind and how much the self-inflicted marital quagmire has sidetracked him. He’s completely adrift, and without a wife or a swing coach, and nobody’s tossing him any life preservers.

“It’s been a long year,” he said. “It’s been a long year.”

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