Tiger’s return to greatness in grave danger

Aug 10th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — A longtime official with the PGA Tour ran into Tiger Woods at the 92nd PGA Championship this week and asked him an empathetic question, which, given his unimaginable particulars of the moment, was a nice gesture.

“Hey, Tiger, can I do anything for you?” the guy asked.

Woods shook his head and didn’t answer. He just laughed.

Fifteen years into an otherworldly professional career, truly for the first time Woods is generating head-shaking performances and laughs at his own expense. The two brief slumps he endured during swing changes aside, the world No. 1 is in dire straits at Whistling Straits.

In metaphorical terms, the course this week is built along a scenic piece of Lake Michigan that had fallen into disrepair and become something of a waste dump. Blown up and rebuilt, it has become golf’s greatest reclamation story. Woods needs a bulldozer, road grader and backhoe, too.

After the way he has played this year, particularly considering what we witnessed last week, it’s looking increasingly doubtful that Woods ever will again be the player he once was.

He has not only been humbled, but humiliated. Whatever was left of his indomitable veneer, that once-unassailable aura, is all but gone. At this moment, about a zillion people in businesses associated with golf must be swallowing hard, taking a knee and thumbing their rosary beads, Buddhist bracelets or necklace crucifixes. The one guy who moves the game’s needle is playing like he had a lethal injection.

It was 12 months ago this week that it first began going sideways for Woods, who for the first time at a major blew the 54-hole lead last year at the PGA, lost to relatively unknown playing partner Y.E. Yang and proved he was human after all. He has had his nose rubbed in his mortality, almost daily, ever since.

Even for the strongest stomachs, it has become unwatchable. Nobody has been tougher on Woods over the past nine months than I have, for legitimate reason. He often treated people badly, proved to be a false idol and betrayed his wife and kids.

Yet it never occurred to me that his one remaining source of refuge, the golf course, would turn into a smelly pile of refuse. The look on Woods’ face last week when he stumbled around Firestone Country Club with a career-worst, second-to-last finish was indescribable.

It was almost pitiable. No doubt, I buried Woods with both hands for the way he conducted himself relating to his sex scandal, and when my mitts got tired, I kicked dirt on him with my feet. But this? I actually feel some sentiment close to sympathy for the guy, whose professional and personal trajectories now have become inseparable.

In April, when Woods came back from months of hiding at the Masters and shot a first-round 68, the first time he had ever broken 70 on Thursday at Augusta, we thought he was some sort of freak. His personal world was collapsing, airplane banners and fans taunted him, yet he still contended.

Clearly, karma didn’t apply to Woods, who played by his own rules and seemed impervious to providence and typical human frailties. Bzzzzzzzt. Wrong answer. As it turned out, he hasn’t been closer to the overnight lead all season than he was after the first two days at Augusta — two strokes.

It appears that many fans, who mostly looked down their nose at his personal failings but often still applauded his professional aspirations, have turned on him. In a poll posted on this website, fans were asked whether Woods should be included on the upcoming Ryder Cup team, no matter how he plays this week in the season’s final major. With more than 18,000 votes cast, the no votes hold a 2-1 lead.

The sentiment that he is damaged goods is echoed by the money being tossed about in Las Vegas, where for the first time at any event he has entered this decade, Woods is not the favorite this week. It’s rival Phil Mickelson, which only adds more salt to the Woods wound.

Players once tap-danced around Woods-related issues like the course was filled with land mines. No longer.

“I don’t know about entering a new era,” Paul Casey said, “but I think there is a slightly different feel. I’ll be honest, the feeling in the locker room is slightly different. With the way he played last week, guys feel like this week is wide open, this tournament, and that’s not a feeling that a lot of guys have had before.”

Increasingly, it feels like they’ll have it a lot more often going forward.

The question has become whether last week’s debacle — Woods finished a staggering 30 strokes behind the winner in his worst pro performance — was more symptomatic of a bigger issue. Being dinged up and damaged psychologically is one thing, but the fact remains that Woods’ play this season had reached a new low, especially with his putter, the most crucial club in the bag.

Virtually every great player has been abandoned by his putter at some point, from Sam Snead (who putted side-saddle and croquet style) to Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, the putter went south and the golf balls no longer did likewise into the hole. The best clutch putter ever, the guy nicknamed Woody willed hundreds of gotta-have putts into the cup over the years — but now he looks like Woody Austin.

“Now we are seeing Tiger Woods play and have an off-week and become a painful, average-middle-of-the-pack-type player for the first time in his career,” Paul Azinger told a Chicago radio outlet. “Thirteen years into it, so it is pretty remarkable that it has gone this long.”

Most dominant players don’t keep their mojo working this long, in other words, especially with putting woes. Quick, name one elite player who has had a massive crisis of confidence with his putter and returned to his former station as a throat-slasher. We’ll wait, but I am not holding my breath awaiting the answer.

Woods admitted that his speed control on the greens (Translated: touch) has abandoned him. Perhaps that’s because he isn’t practicing as much these days, but maybe it isn’t.

Make no mistake, this is not intended to serve as a career obituary. At some point, his toxic personal issues will be sorted out and Woods’ game will approach some semblance of “normalcy.” He actually used that term with regard to his game before last week, then went out and shot a trillion. He’ll still contend at majors, though not as often. Winning four more to catch Jack Nicklaus seems like an impossible ask.

“I really don’t look at this year and say it’s a sign of things to come,” Hunter Mahan said Tuesday.

We’re not going that far, either. But at age 34½, the guy who won five or more tournaments every year he was healthy, who amassed more tour titles and majors faster than anybody who ever picked up a crooked stick, the indomitable persona seems gone forever. The personal skidmarks created when he plowed into the fire hydrant and tree outside his house on Thanksgiving have been manifested in his game.

“When you are in a slump, you start questioning absolutely every aspect of what you are doing, from your family level right up through your coach, your manager, your caddie,” U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said. “Questioning the deep, dark depths of your soul as to what you’ve done wrong and where you need to go from there.”

Woods doesn’t have a family life or coach and has become an island unto himself, making the salvage job even tougher. He said that after the death of his father, the central figure in his personal and professional lives, things were not this brutal.

“Every time I come out here, it’s been a little bit more difficult,” Woods said Tuesday. “Off the golf course, it’s been a lot more difficult. A lot of things have gone on, but in both instances it’s about attaining balance and finding an equilibrium, and that’s certainly something that I’ve been trying to do.”

Equilibrium? At the moment, it’s like he has vertigo.

Woods clearly has fallen. There has never been more doubt about whether, or to what degree, he’ll get up.

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