Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The U.S. Open with (and without) TW

You can bet Tiger Woods will do all he can to rehab his neck injury in time to compete in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month. The last time the Open was held at Pebble Beach, in 2000, Tiger set a record with a 15-shot victory.
Last summer, after the PGA Championship, most close observers said 2010 could be the year Tiger would make a run at the Grand Slam. He'd already won the Masters four times and was looking for a fifth at Augusta National; the U.S. Open would be held at Pebble Beach, where he had played a bit as an amateur while attending Stanford University and where he'd torched the U.S. Open field in 2000; the British Open was returning to St. Andrews, the home of golf and where Tiger had won the last two times it had been held there (2000, 2005), winning by 8 shots in 2000 with a 19-under-par 269, a record for all golf majors; the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., could have conceivably been the capper on a Tiger Slam.
Then came the infamous Thanksgiving weekend in which Tiger's secret life came crashing down, and, I believe, possibly taking with it his professional life.
His marital infidelity has been well documented, so I won't rehash the seamy details. However, I believe this stumble had a greater consequence of ripping away the aura of invincibility Tiger often carried around on the golf course. When he played well (which was most of the time), other pros had almost become convinced that he was unbeatable.
With that facade gone, Tiger is no longer feared on tour.
It's because of this comedown, I believe, that Tiger won't win another major, at Pebble Beach or anywhere else. It's highly likely the only TW we see at Pebble Beach this year is Tom Watson, who competed there in the '72 Open won by Jack Nicklaus, then beat Jack with his historic chip-in at the 71st hole in '82 and also played in Opens at Pebble Beach in '92 and in 2000.
Forget, for a moment, Tiger's personal life. Yes, his wife, Elin, reportedly will be filing for divorce any day. But personal strife is no kiss of death for professional athletes.
Nick Faldo, a winner of the Masters and British Open three times each, also has been married and divorced three times, and an ex-girlfriend once smashed his Porsche 959 with a golf club. Watson got divorced from his first wife at 48, but he's been a rousing success on the Senior PGA Tour, nearly won the British Open last year at 59 and was in the hunt for a long time this year at 60. Fred Couples won his only major championship, the 1992 Masters, during a year in which he and first wife Deborah were going through a bitter divorce. Ben Crenshaw's first wife, Polly, filed for divorce the week before the Masters in 1984; Ben won the Masters that year for his first major championship. Crenshaw also won the Masters in 1995, after serving as pallbearer earlier in the week for longtime friend and mentor Harvey Penick.
If these guys, and there are many more, can overcome personal problems to succeed in golf, surely Tiger, whose focus is legendary, would be able to do the same. But Tiger's problems aren't solely personal; it's his golf game that's in trouble.
I know, he came back after more than a 5-month layoff to finish tied for fourth in the Masters, a remarkable accomplishment, even for Tiger. But he missed the cut in his next start and looked pitiful at the Players Championship before picking up on the seventh hole of the final round. His neck injury no doubt contributed greatly to his poor play, but even while scoring well at Augusta his game looked more than just rusty.
As for his longtime swing coach, Hank Haney, leaving him earlier this week, I'm not sure if Hank was miffed about Tiger personally, of if the two simply decided there was no more to be gained from the player-coach relationship. Either way, it's not a good sign.
The worst sign, however, is Tiger's once-vaunted reputation. His shadow used to loom large over any event and especially the majors. While his presence at any tournament is still noteworthy, it has more of a car-wreck quality about it now.
Tiger can be beaten, and everybody knows it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Was that really Tiger?

The greatest golfer of this century didn't win the Masters last month, but who really expected him to? I've taken five months off from golf before, and my game looked like crap the first time back. And yet Tiger put the clubs in the closet (I hope he took them away from Elin first), went to rehab for whatever private personal issues he couldn't talk about, then came out to Augusta, no pitch-and-putt and certain to expose any weaknesses in a person's game, and actually made a run for the Green Jacket.
That he didn't win wasn't surprising. That he didn't embarrass himself (aside from a verbal outburst or two) was surprising.
Then came Tiger's second tournament, and embarrassing doesn't begin to describe it. Paired for two days with Angel Cabrera, who has both a Green Jacket and a U.S. Open title to his credit, and Stewart Cink, last year's British Open champion, Tiger looked like a pro-am partner from Bushwood Country Club, all over the lot and, worse yet, seemingly not even caring.
In two rounds at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., Tiger posted 10 bogeys and three double-bogeys, needing to par the final three holes on Friday just to break 80, and missed the cut - by eight shots. Somehow, he managed seven birdies in two days, but it wasn't enough to keep him from recording a fat 43 on his final nine holes and 153 for two days, the worst 36-hole score of his illustrious career.
The numbers, though, don't do this mess justice. You had to see Tiger in action, playing "army" golf - left, right, left, right - and rarely finding the fairway. He showed little of that magician's touch we've come to expect, and, though he promised prior to the Masters that he would work harder to keep his anger in check, to see him follow through with almost no emotion at all was sad, to say the least. We've heard him utter F-bombs, not very attractive; now we've seen him become emotionally detached, which might be even more scary.
If Tiger's play at Quail Hollow was pathetic, his reaction could only be described as apathetic.
You wouldn't think it could get worse, but it might. Tiger found the water on several occasions at Quail Hollow. But the course that awaits him next week - TPC at Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship - has water on nearly every hole, including the final three in what is the make-or-break stage of the "fifth major" for touring pros.
Roughly 400 years ago, the English clergyman and poet John Donne observed that "no man is an island." It may be too early to tell if Tiger is becoming (or trying to become) an island unto himself, but when he stands on the tee at Sawgrass' infamous 17th hole, observing a green almost completely surrounded by water, what will he see?
At that moment, will he feel like an island?