By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 17, 2009
It had to happen some time -- and it only took 12 years. That's how long Tiger Woods beat the math, stomped all over the law of averages in golf. Now that he's finally lost a trophy despite leading in the final round of a major championship, his competitors will have a little more hope, be a little less intimidated, and maybe some of them will even ask whether he's quite the same player. But the short answer will come back the same: It had to happen sometime.
We would do well not to draw too many long-term conclusions from Woods's loss to Y.E. Yang of South Korea in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, despite the temptation Woods offered with his vulnerable, putter-shaky round of 75. It was inevitable that one day he would run into a player who was as unafraid of him as Yang was and lose his first major after holding the 54-hole lead. "I'm not scared," Yang told his caddie, A.J. Montecinos. It was an inescapable fact that someone would come along and put ability together with a little good fortune, and stab him in the heart with a chip-in as Yang did at the 14th hole for eagle. "Next thing you know, it's in the hole," his caddie said. It was unavoidable that eventually Woods's putter would betray him, after rolling so many putts into the hole on command.
"It was just a bad day at the wrong time and that's the way it goes," Woods said.
The terrible toll the PGA took on Woods's trophy-burdened life is this: Instead of being unbeaten in majors when he held a final-round lead, he is now 14-1, and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 majors is stalled until next spring. That's it. That's the grand significance. The fact is, as monumentally shocking as the event seemed while it was happening, in the long run it will mean a lot more to Yang than to Woods, who absorbed the loss like a gentleman and a professional, and analyzed it matter-of-factly. "I don't think anyone has gone 14 for 14 or 15 for 15," he said. "I played well enough to win the championship. I did not putt well enough to win the championship today."
There are plenty of good reasons why Woods lost and went winless for the year in the majors. In retrospect, it's taken him all season to recover his form since he underwent offseason knee surgery -- and he may not be fully back yet. A year ago he was just removing his knee brace and "learning to walk again," as he described it. With five victories for 2009, he hardly has a lot to second guess.
There is only one thing Woods should reappraise in the wake of his loss: whether he's grown too conservative. At 33, Woods's personality has become clearer, and his chief characteristic is that he's an absolute control freak. The Woods of 2009 is a less supple and explosive player. He has retooled his once-elastic swing into a more muscular, mechanical motion, partly to take the torque off his reconstructed knee but also to make him feel more in control of the ball, but it's debatable whether it's cost him more than he's gained.
Afterward, he was defensive at suggestions that he may have surrendered too much in favor of consistency, and argued that his swing alteration will help him win majors, not lose them. "You have to give yourself enough chances to win them, and I've done that," he said. "I'm proud of the changes I've made to get to this point."
But Woods is strategically more careful as well, eschewing aggression in favor of steadiness. He studies conditions almost obsessively, and predetermines what score he believes will win. He is so calculated that he rarely hemorrhages strokes like other players do, which is what makes him so hard to beat. He gives up nothing easily, avoids the round-killing mistake and leaves his opponents little to hope for. But that makes him less flexible, too, when disruptions such as wind or mud upset his plans and introduce unpredictability -- or when he has a bad day with the putter.
Perhaps Woods over-managed himself in this tournament, and was too predetermined. Instead of running away from the field, he never gained much separation and his scores actually worsened over four days: 67-70-71-75. All week long he referred to himself as "plodding," and it was apt. He set himself up for disappointment on Saturday, when he decided that conditions on Hazeltine would make it difficult to score, and decided to play defensively. It was miscalculation. Hazeltine played easily. While Woods was stuck in neutral, Padraig Harrington and Yang closed to within two strokes, with U.S. Open champions Lucas Glover and Ernie Els also lurking.
Woods left the door open, and in walked some tough pursuers. The odds were that he wasn't going to be able to fend all of them off. "In fairness to Tiger, [the streak] is not going to last forever," Harrington said Saturday night. "Maybe he'll be 60 when it's broken, but it's not going to last forever. Maybe I'll be the guy who does it. I suppose that's the way to look at it."
One of the reasons why Woods is such a great front-runner is that his rivals tend to collapse. In seven of his 14 titles, he beat players who had never won a major, and most of them tended to play poorly. The scoring average of the men paired with him in the final round of majors told the whole story: 73.14, to his 69.50.
When Harrington made a horrendous quintuple-bogey 8 at the par-3 eighth hole, and Glover bogeyed three of four holes to fall back by the turn, it seemed that Woods would have his way again. But this time it was the reverse, he couldn't rely on Yang to fold. He could have been forgiven for expecting him to, since Yang's previous best finish in a major was a tie for 30th. Instead, Yang's 70, which tied for the low round of the day, was almost mistake-free with eight pars in a row, and just one feeble moment, when he three-putted from 40 feet on the 17th to throw Woods a lifeline. Then came his spectacular birdie on the 18th hole with a hybrid wallop to eight feet, the sort of shot we're more accustomed to seeing from Woods. You kept waiting for Woods to make a move, but the weather was tricky -- gusts of wind blew the flags in different directions, and rattled the sticks -- and when his move came, it was backwards, with bogeys on the final two holes.
As Yang whooped and hefted his bag over his head like a conquering weightlifter, Woods stared at his ball, and walked away. He had just suffered his Jack Fleck moment, upset by an unknown lesser player, as Ben Hogan was by Fleck in the 1955 U.S. Open, and as all champions eventually are. Perhaps that was inevitable, too. But then, Woods was so used to defying the inevitable.
"I hit it great all day," Woods said. "I made absolutely nothing."