Tiger Woods Is a Master and a Student of the Game

In the middle of a drenched U.S. Open, is Tiger Woods in the first stages of a major drought?
In the middle of a drenched U.S. Open, is Tiger Woods in the first stages of a major drought? (By Matt Slocum -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, June 21, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. Tiger Woods may know more about golf than anybody, not just how to play it, but its history, the shape of careers, the tricks and traps of the sport both on and off the course. So, when he was asked this week, "Who do you think is the best golfer of all time and why?" his answer was as brief as it was fascinating.

"Jack," he said, contradicting the opinion of many, including me, that it's already him.

"How close are you?"

"He's got 18. I'm at 14," said Woods.

Tiger's response showed both his determination to smash golf's record for major championships and his appreciation that, until he's actually done it, the history of his sport says that he should beware. Have a care. Take nothing for granted. Tiger knows it. But do we? Do we grasp, as Woods surely does, that he's at a precarious juncture in his best-athlete-on-earth career? His lifelong goal is so close, yet, as this week at Bethpage Black in the U.S. Open has shown, may be further than it seems.

One year ago at Torrey Pines, Woods looked invincible. How much chance does a mere Mickelson or Harrington have against a man, wearing a mantle of myth, who wins his national championship while playing 90 holes with a stress fracture in his leg and triumphs despite a knee that needs total reconstructive surgery? Limp, hobble, grimace, beat your brains out.

Back then, we could hardly imagine what deeds he'd do when he returned, since his competitors, always perilously close to timid, might become completely petrified. Golf marked time as Woods, after eight months of rehabilitation, came back to the top of the sport -- almost. But not quite. Those final inches to the summit are the most precarious.

Here at the Black, where he won the U.S. Open in '02, Woods arrived as a silly-strong favorite. Yet, at the midpoint of this Open, he is 11 shots behind, his chances gone. Or down to centimeters. Tiger's biggest comeback at the halfway point in a major is from six shots behind at the '05 Masters. Then, he was in third place, not 41st.

Time flies in the core of a golf career and, soon, Woods will have gone a year -- and four majors -- without a win. Most likely, that situation will change, maybe fast. But golf history says we should relish the difficulty of the comeback -- from surgery and rust -- that he's attempting.

Tiger insists that he feels better than ever, expects to surpass his previous standards and now can practice shots by the hour that previously pained him too much. His two wins this season, the first with a clutch-putting comeback at Arnie's house, the second with a never-better ball-striking show at Jack's house, seemed to bear him out.

But not quite. Day after day at the Masters, Woods stumbled on the final holes and struggled with his putting, and he finished tied for seventh. Now, at the Open, Woods has pulled the same pratfall, finishing with back-to-back bogeys in the first round and another final-hole bogey on Saturday. Lousy luck in the draw hurt him, but no more than his own mediocre play.

"The finish yesterday really hurt a lot and put me so far back," Woods said. "I had to finish at 70, 71. That would've been a good score. But 74, which was the mean for the day on my side [of the draw], is not what it takes to win a U.S. Open.

"My score [74-69] doesn't reflect how I'm playing. But it is what it is. Keep plugging away, make a birdie here and there and see what happens," said Woods who, at 3 over par will need a whole migration of birdies. "I'm hitting it well enough, but I need to make some putts and get it rolling" on the greens.

But how is he going to do that? The greens have gotten into his purist perfectionist head. "They are bumpy and slow," he said. "You don't want to roll the ball past the hole, trust me. The putts I hit well didn't go in. And the ones I didn't weren't even close."

When you're young, you learn how to win tournaments. It's a barely conscious, purely experiential process. The more you do it, the better you get at it. As a player ages he learns how to lose tournaments. And it happens the same way, by a kind of accumulative osmosis of defeat. Even the great in golf learn how to just barely avoid victory.

Because Tiger knows everything about Nicklaus's career, he also understands one of the most disturbing truths about elite players: They never know when the game will suddenly start to get hard. Or why.

That's why the handful of seasons in a star's prime, those precious major championships in your 30s when power, golf experience and emotional maturity are all simultaneously at your command, are so vital to a legacy. From 30 through 35, Nicklaus poured it on, winning seven majors for a total of 15 at that point, just as Woods has won four majors from the time he turned 30 until now at age 33, when he stands at 14.

But Nicklaus hit an almost imperceptible wall. Few saw it coming, certainly not the Golden Bear himself. At the ages of 36, 37, 38 and 39, when he was still winning on the PGA Tour, still had his strength, still looked like a slimmed-down glamour guy and contended in almost every prestige event, Nicklaus went 1 for 16 in majors. Suddenly, he was narrowly losing the big ones: second four times, third twice, fourth twice, as well as a sixth, seventh, 10th and 11th. Jack: Always on the board, almost never a winner.

That's why Nicklaus's win at the '80 Open caused such a "Jack's back" fuss. We lost him or he misplaced himself, just as we took his hegemony for granted.

Because Woods dominates his era by a greater margin than Nicklaus oppressed his, Tiger is less likely to have a similar drought. And because Woods has Nicklaus's "18" as such a specific goal, he is unlikely to lose focus. Nicklaus counted his majors, but, by 35, was alone at the top and had no hurdle to use for motivation.

Odds are that Woods, like Nicklaus, will make a charge into the top 10 before this Open is done. But it seems too much to hope that Woods can top his work in San Diego. That may have been the most thrilling, improbable Open ever, one that actually got more impressive when the extent of Woods's injury was revealed afterward. Everything at Torrey Pines reached toward the high blue sky and the endless Pacific. Seldom have so many walked every hole, as Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired the first two days while Woods and Rocco Mediate battled for the next three.

Bethpage has, by contrast, become Bathpage. Rain, or the threat of it, has made the place a yucky mire, with fans moaning that they wore golf shoes (almost useless in mud that climbs your ankles outside the gallery ropes) instead of opting for flip-flops. No one knows if the event will end Sunday, Monday or, if there's a playoff, perhaps Tuesday.

From an ideal Open to an endless one. From an invincible Tiger with a broken leg to a healthy Woods who's vulnerable. In golf, just when you think you have your bearings, that's exactly the moment when you probably don't. And that's the best part.

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