Before Tiger Woods teed off Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach, many people figured he’d win his first tournament in three years and speculated about how many majors he’d win this season. One for sure. Two, perhaps? Not three? Three?
By the time he reached the 10th hole in the final round, those same people were wondering if he could possibly recover from his terrible start and Phil Mickelson’s blistering front-nine.
By the time he reached the 18th hole, people were talking about bad putts and shaky nerves, about shattered confidences and wrecked knees, about headline-grabbing scandals and mundane 20th place finishes. They talked about Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major victories and Woods’s pursuit, but only to ridicule any idea that Tiger might one day pass the Golden Bear.
Such is the life for Tiger Woods in 2012, a decade removed from the Tiger Slam, and two years after a car accident and punch lines about Perkins waitresses.
People’s thoughts on Tiger can change over the course of a single day or a single tournament. They can even change over the course of a single round or a single hole. If you ever follow along on a live golf blog on ESPN or golf.com, people react with cries of “He’s BACK!” every time Tiger puts an approach three feet from the cup and scream “He’s FINISHED!” the second he yanks that ensuing putt. A birdie conjures up images of Tiger wearing the Green Jacket, while a double bogey after a torturous three-putt makes you wonder if he’ll soon be fitted for a strait one.
Efforts like Sunday lead to columns like this one by the great Joe Posnanski, who talks about Tiger’s performance on the final hole on Sunday. Posnanski has written many times about the difficulty Tiger will have returning to the top and, realistically, how unlikely it is that he actually ever does break Nicklaus’s record. It’s a view shared by many of my good friends, whom I enjoy debating with whenever Tiger surges on a Friday or blows up on a Sunday.
The argument’s easy to make and difficult to refute. Golfers don’t win a lot of majors after the age of 35. They don’t become more consistent putters. They don’t get healthier. Self-confidence dips, self-doubts rise. Think about the hard numbers: Tiger has to win five majors to break Nicklaus’s record. Forget about how impossibly easy he made it look when winning 14 in 12 years; think about how impossibly difficult it’s been winning one the past three years. Is it realistic to think he’ll do that two more times, much less four or five? Probably not.
So why do I still have him winning 19?
Part of it’s probably just falling victim to the desire to see a great return to his peak powers or at least something close. It’s a desire to see history. I didn’t get to watch DiMaggio or Mantle but I’ve watched Bonds and Pujols. I didn’t get to watch Unitas or Brown but I watched Sanders and Brady. I didn’t get to watch Nicklaus in the ’70s but I watched Tiger in 2000. And as thrilling as it was watching Jack win in ’86 and as fun as it would be watching a 46-year-old Tiger battle a 25-year-old at the 2022 Masters…I want to see greatness before that time.
And as surprising as it sounds when you stack up everything he has going against him at this point when it comes to talking about history, Tiger still has some of it on his side – namely, we’ve seen this type of drought before. Twice, in fact. Tiger has now played in 10 majors without a victory – he missed two majors in both 2008 and 2011. But twice before in his career he’s gone 10 majors without a victory, though it seems difficult to remember when the dominant moments from his career are triumphs at Augusta and St. Andrews and everywhere in between. Following his runaway victory in the 1997 Masters, Woods didn’t win another major until the 1999 PGA. And after his victory in the 2002 U.S. Open, he didn’t win another major until the 2005 Masters. Each time he won on the 11th major. This year’s Masters will be that 11th major.
Both of those other streaks came during infamous swing changes, when he overhauled his game while everyone asked why? He’s now in the middle of another swing change, again when everyone is asking why? Some people still clamor for him to return to Butch Harmon, though those calls seem to be more about wanting Tiger to admit he was wrong than worry about his swing, especially since Harmon has no problem taking an occasional shot at his former star pupil. It’s also worth noting Tiger did win six majors without Harmon. At this point it often seems Tiger still doesn’t quite trust his swing. Still, history has shown that we can usually trust that Tiger knows what’s best for his game.
Back to Jack. Nicklaus won his 15th major at the age of 38 at the 1978 British Open. In other words, if Tiger wins just one of his next 10 majors, he’d be ahead of Nicklaus’s pace. And Jack is the only one who really makes sense when talking comparisons. We can analyze how golfers fare when they turn 35 and talk about Watson’s putting troubles or Els’s injuries or the failures of everyone else who’s ever picked up a club. We can compare Tiger to Faldo and Hogan and Snead and Miller. But Tiger wasn’t like those players in his teens, twenties or early thirties, so why shove him into the same groups now? His only peer, from the time he was a teen winning all those amateurs to his first Masters victory and through his one-legged triumph at the Open, has been Nicklaus. They’re the ones that make winning career Grand Slams look as easy as hitting one in baseball. They’re the ones who can win on any course, on any layout, in any condition. Jack’s been watching Tiger for as long as Woods has has been stalking his records. They’re the two-best ever, and the third-place guy is a par-5 behind them. No, not everyone can win after 35. Jack could. Tiger?
Of course there’s so much that’s different now, isn’t there? Tiger has the bad knees, Jack didn’t. Even with those other droughts, so much has changed. Knee surgeries and scandals have created chaos where there was only order, doubt where there was only confidence. It’s that mental game that we wonder about now. The swing seems like it’s coming back in order. But what’s happening on Sundays? It’s remarkable how easy it is these days to predict when Tiger will struggle. If you see him pull a drive on the first hole or par a par-5 or miss a short putt on the third hole, you can almost guarantee you’ll see a middling round that’s filled with more curses than birdies. He doesn’t seem to be able to follow one great round with another. And during a bad round, he doesn’t seem to be able to pull it out of the abyss and turn it into at least an average one.
It seems all mental, and we wonder what’s going on under that Nike camp, though we can always speculate. The scandal had to have shamed him, goes the thinking. Imagine standing out there over a putt while everyone in the crowd is thinking of you in bed with a call girls. The smirks, the snickers. Think of just the emotional toll the divorce must have had on him, losing his wife and all that money and what it’s done to his kids and that must have dealt heavy blows to his psyche. That’s what we believe anyway, and the evidence seems to support it.
But I’m not sure we know what’s going on in Tiger Woods’ head anymore now than we did when he was laying waste to scoreboards instead of bunkers. Time has brought some fans back to his side. But there really wasn’t any type of public reform, at least not the kind that’s practically demanded in this Celebrity Rehab era. There was no Oprah, just awkward interviews on the Golf Channel. There was no written confessional, just more bland statements on his boring website and inane tweets. His post-round interviews sound the same as always. He mentions lip-outs when talking about putts that miss by several inches and difficult greens that somehow every other player in the tournament managed just fine. He’s “close” and it’s a “process” and he’s happy with where he’s at – or he’s not happy – and he’s only there to win. The interviews could be from 1998 or 2006. Only the hairline is different. It’s almost as if he believes that if he acts the same on the course the results will be the same. It induces scoffs and derisive laughs.
People don’t believe in him and don’t believe he believes in himself. But we don’t really know. We can only watch. For all we know, he really does believe he’s close. And he might actually be right.
The great thing about golf is that Tiger could indeed go 10 more majors without a victory and I could write this same post in two years. It’s a sport where a 59-year-old can come within a single hole of winning a major.
“Don’t count him out,” I’ll write, ridiculously. “This new swing is looking sharper. If he can get some putts to drop…”
But I’m not reaching yet. Not when we’ve seen Tiger Woods go several years between major victories. Not when we’ve seen him change his game and emerge on top, even if those were the days when the phrase “on top” meant something much different than it does now when talking about post-scandal Tiger. We’ve seen this movie before, even if the script is unlike anything that’s come before.
Tiger Woods is 36 and the words you’d put before that number now is “an old” instead of “only.” There’s no guarantee he’ll even win one more tournament, much less five more majors. But I still believe counting him out is a worse bet than counting on him.
But if the swing falls apart again and the putts don’t fall at all and he doesn’t win the Masters and that major drought reaches 11? Maybe don’t bet on major victory 19.