As Tiger’s World Turns

Tiger Woods looked like a dead man walking two weeks ago at the PGA Championship. Scores of 77 and 73 left him well outside the cut-line, keeping Woods home on the weekend of a major for the third time in his career.

It wasn’t the high scores or the Thursday meltdown that was so troubling. It was the helplessness Wood showed at the Atlantic Athletic Club. He found sand and water with the frequency of a weekend hacker during his two days in Atlanta. His driver was a mess and his short game was in shambles.

Injuries and poor play prevented Woods from qualifying for Fed Ex Playoffs, which begin this week at The Barclays. The Playoffs, a four tournament fall series designed to keep the Tour relevant for casual fans as football season begins, will not have the game’s biggest star for the second time in its five year history.

Tiger has fallen to 33rd in the OWGR. He failed to make the Presidents Cup team this year, and again must rely on a captain’s pick to represent the United States in a team competition. Captain Fred Couples has indicated he’ll pick Woods for his team, but last week told Golf World’s Tim Rosaforte he wants to see Tiger play between now and November, when Woods is next scheduled to appear.

Everyone wants to see Tiger play. He is still the game’s biggest draw and remains the only golfer who moves the needle. Increasingly fans tune in to see if Tiger can regain his form, or whether his ongoing soap opera will continue.

Even Tiger admitted he needs competitive reps. He’s played only six tournament rounds since The Masters. He’s worked with Sean Foley a year now, though it’s hard to gauge the progress of his new swing due to his prolonged absence from the Tour due to injuries.

Critics agree that Woods should play more. John Feinstein bashed Woods last week for skipping the Greensboroevent (one he’s never played) and forfeiting a chance to qualify for the playoffs. Fox Sports writer Robert Lusetich recently argued: Tiger needs reps, not rest.

Lusetich’s column is falling on deaf ears, as the journalist surely knows. He spent considerable time highlighting Tiger’s stubborn streak in Unplayable, an inside account on Tiger’s 2009 season.

The more people question Tiger’s decision making, the more Tiger becomes determined to hunker down and prove his critics wrong. That stubbornness helped make him the game’s most dominant player. It may now prevent him from returning to his past glory.

Woods has spent several years tinkering with his swing, to the chagrin of observers who thought he messed up the game’s best move after parting with Butch Harmon in 2002. Lusetich recounts Tiger defending his then coach Hank Haney in 2009, when observers concluded that the teacher’s methods were screwing up Woods’ swing and costing him major championships.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee was one such critic who thought Haney’s instruction hurt Tiger’s swing. Throughout Woods’ relationship with Haney (2003-2010), Tiger battled his driver and couldn’t eliminate the blocked drive (that starts right and goes further right) off the tee.

Chamblee said Tiger’s arms were too far from his body during his backswing. No golfer except Lee Trevino had managed to hit the ball successfully from that position.

Woods still found a way to win, however. He triumphed six times on the PGA Tour in 2009. Observers attributed this to his mental strength and short game prowess He found a way to turn a 72 into a 68 regularly. The 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill best highlighted Tiger’s tenacity. That week he hit only 20 (of 72) greens. He finished T 39 that week. No one else on Tour would have made the half way cut.

Poor driver play has often forced Woods to grind out pars. The club has always been Tiger’s nemesis, but his misses became more pronounced under Haney. He also began losing length advantage over the competition over the last decade, as technology improved and the golf ball exploded.

Tiger’s technique also hindered his distance off the tee. Chamblee notes that he’s one of only two Tour players (Charles Howell III is the other) who hit down on his driver. Woods is the only professional who hits his driver shorter now than he did a decade ago. He still has a comparable ball speed to Bubba Watson, but Watson regular puts his drives twenty yards past Tiger.

Haney wanted to deflect blame from his instruction and blamed Tiger’s putting for his major woes in 2009. A mediocre ball striker with 100 putts over 72 holes will win most tournaments while a player with 120 putts won’t win anything, Haney argued.

Tom Weiskopf’s 1969 Masters was a case in point. He hit 68 greens in regulation that week at Augusta but three putted 11 times and watched George Archer put on the green jacket.

Haney has a point. There’s no denying that Tiger is not the putter he once was.

Woods drained every consequential putt in majors during his glory days. He was automatic. Woods showed this talent, most notably on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open when he knocked in a treacherous birdie putt to put himself in a playoff with Rocco Mediate.  NBC Sports’ announcer Dan Hicks’ proclaimed: “expect anything different?”

But Tiger began losing that magical touch during 2009. Like many golfers entering the second half of their careers (Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson) a balky putter led to pusillanimous strokes and kept them from additional major glory.

Tiger’s putter looked fine during August 2009, however. Woods had won back to back events at the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational. He opened the PGA Championship in 67 and held a first round lead. Tiger remained on top of the leader board through 54 holes.

Woods looked poised to win his 15th major championship. In his 14 major triumphs, Woods’ final day scoring average was 69.5. His playing partner’s average was 73.14.

His peers had developed considerable scar tissue over the years. Davis Love, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Ernie Els all suffered during Tiger’s dominant era. But Tiger wasn’t playing a would-be rival on this Sunday. He was paired with a little known journeyman.

Y.E. Yang became golf’s Buster Douglas. He shattered the sport’s most intimidating man. Eight months earlier, he was in Q-School struggling to regain his card. Yang got through that ordeal and then won at the Honda Classic, earning a two year Tour exemption.

The Korean remained an anonymous name to all but the most ardent golf fans however. He looked like just another golfer Tiger would leave in the dust on the road to Mount Nicklaus.

Tiger surely thought so. He continued playing conservatively on Sunday just as he had on Day 3, when he saw a 4 shot lead drop to 2. Woods expected his opponent to fold under Sunday pressure, as so many foes had in the past.

Yang refused to play along with this script. He kept matching Woods’ score, and by the back side had Tiger on the ropes. 33 putts kept Tiger from winning his 5th PGA Championship. Yang hit a memorable hybrid shot on the 72nd hole to beat Woods and shock the golf world.

Tiger’s world has turned upside down since that August day two years ago at Hazeltine. His private life has imploded. His public life scarred by scandal. He still sits 4 majors shy of Jack Nicklaus.

Many golf fans wonder why Tiger’s still worthy of all the attention. His game is a mess. Shouldn’t the media focus on the game’s new stars?

Golf World executive editor Ron Sirak responded: seriously? Tiger remains the game’s most compelling storyline.

Indeed he is. Right now Tiger is great reality television. His next appearance will be sports at its best:  unscripted human drama unfolding in the heat of competition.

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