Tiger Woods's Painful Lesson: How to Lose
Is Tiger Woods learning how to lose?
Sooner or later, they all do. It certainly happened to Jack Nicklaus who, from the age of 36 to 39 went just 1 for 17 in majors and even began losing the kind of PGA Tour events he had always swept into his trophy sack with the back of his hand.
Is something similar happening now to Woods, though he's just 33? Three weeks ago at the PGA Championship, Tiger lost a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time in his life. Then, on Sunday at the Barclays, in his first event back on Tour, Woods missed a seven-foot putt on the 72nd hole to lose by a shot.
And who beat him? At the PGA, Y.E. Yang faced him down head-to-head on the last day as Tiger shot 75. Then on Sunday, Heath Slocum sank a 20-foot putt on the same green where Woods had just missed. Until they beat Tiger, neither was ranked among the world's top 100. Woods didn't just come up short; he lost to, with due respect, near-unknowns. If Y.E. and Heath can do it, who can't?
For professional golfers, the message was unmistakable: If you play your best, maybe Tiger wins or maybe you win. This is subtly different from the previous dozen years, when the operative assumption was: If you play your best, maybe Tiger wins -- or maybe Tiger wins.
Far be it from me to propose the most obvious explanation, but: Prolonged exposure to human experience degrades confidence among mortals. (Or maybe you haven't noticed.)
Elite athletes know they are human. But in the sport in which they are the best in the world, they really do believe they are invincible, or close to it, until proven otherwise. Often, other players administer the lesson, but even if they don't, time always does. Maybe it's aging or injury, or just the odds, but the beginnings of self-doubt slipstream behind them all. Even wisdom can get in the way. The death of parents or the birth of your own children can bring depth.
Maturity, mortality's next of kin, doesn't always help on seven-foot putts.
Is it accident or irony that Nicklaus stalled after he won 14 majors, the same point at which Woods is now? And, like Nicklaus's long ago, Woods's struggles have emanated from many sources.
This year, at the Masters, Tiger couldn't finish promising rounds, hashing the 17th and 18th holes repeatedly. At the U.S. Open he couldn't make a putt. At the British Open, he misplaced his swing -- which had looked wonderful two weeks earlier when he won his own event at Congressional -- and missed the cut. And at the PGA, he squandered a two-shot lead on Sunday, finished bogey-bogey and missed an eight-foot putt at the 71st hole that might have tied him with Yang for the lead.
If you spent much of 1976-79 trudging the golf beat behind Nicklaus, all this seems unpleasantly familiar. In '75, Jack was at his trim, fashion-forward crowd-darling apex. His magazine covers, ads and new courses were everywhere. He might not have been as lionized as Woods was after winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg, but it was pretty close. It was Jack's world. He barely seemed to play yet led the money list. What could go wrong? Actually, almost everything.
With Bobby Jones's 12 major titles in his rearview mirror, maybe Nicklaus got complacent, comfortable with his family or distracted by business. But whatever the causes, Jack learned how to lose, like everybody else.