By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 9:24 PM
It has been more than two years since Tiger Woods has won a major golf championship. He has never gone this deep into a season without winning a tournament of some kind. Just last week he finished a tournament tied for 79th out of 80 golfers in driving accuracy. The only thing Tiger did worse than drive the ball was putt it. Tiger Woods has made about as many putts this summer as Ickey Woods.
So "What's Wrong with Tiger?" has become the No. 1 question in sports. And the answer is pretty darned simple: His life fell apart.
It has been a hot mess since Thanksgiving night when word of his dalliances became to trickle out, and it could be for a while longer. He lost, for all practical purposes, his wife, his family life as he knew it, his peace and quiet and everything that went with it, including his athletic precision and whatever competitive advantages he had held over his peers for more than a decade.
Some folks looked at his pair of fourth-place finishes at the Masters and the U.S. Open as proof he wasn't that far off form, but Tiger knew better, even as he was scrambling and hustling to contend. That's why he said Tuesday, "I thought I would have been here a little bit sooner, with all that's going on."
By "here," Tiger meant rock bottom, that hellish destination that describes not only the level of golf he has played this summer, but almost certainly his personal life as well.
Not only is it no longer a given that Tiger will surpass Jack Nicklaus's career major championship total of 18, it's not even a given he can make the cut this week at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
And Tiger's losing is golf's loss - a huge loss for which there's no Plan B. When Tiger finished tied for 78th last weekend in an 80-man field, television ratings for the Bridgestone Invitational were down 51 percent from the year before, when Tiger won the tournament and, more important, was playing during the entire television slot.
What the networks need is another iconic golfer to fall out of the heavens, and it ain't happening. So, the network executives and the tournament directors and all the sponsors sit there and pray Tiger somehow battles his way out of this.
And that's not going to happen overnight, because you don't pick up the pieces of your shattered life that easily. Yes, real life has gotten in Tiger's way before: a few years ago when his father Earl died, to be exact.
"I really took solace in going out to the golf course after my dad passed," Tiger said Tuesday, "because it brought back so many great memories growing up . . . of practicing and training and competing and giving each other the needle."
He paused and noted that this real life interruption has been much more a kick in the gut. There's nothing nostalgic about your mistresses going public or having your wife and children humiliated. "It's been a lot more difficult," Tiger said.
And those things have stopped him from concentrating on golf, which is probably as it should be because he caused the mess he's in. As gifted as Tiger Woods is, athletically, passion for practice and training are even more important to his success. And Tiger's not up to that kind of fanatical preparation right now, and hasn't been since Thanksgiving.
"Somehow, I've been able to play a little better than I thought for a stretch," he said, "and then it finally caught up with me last week."
So when will he be able to find that level of fanaticism again? Who knows? Most likely, even he doesn't. He's hoping the worst is over.
"I don't have paparazzi camped out in front of the house [any more], the hotel, the helicopters [with tabloid photographers] flying over the [practice] range," he said. "That was happening every day. They were following my kids everywhere they went, taking photographs of everything they were doing. That was very tough. But that hasn't been the case of late. . . .To me, that's a sign it's heading toward normalizing."
Whenever it disappears completely there will still be a new "normal" for Tiger Woods and maybe it'll be a place that allows him to resume practicing and competing at the level we grew accustomed to watching, though maybe not. What's fascinating is the general public, which seemed to insatiable in its appetite for revelations of his indiscretions, now appears to have no interest in watching him fail on the golf course. Now that he has been chopped down to size by public ridicule, people want to see Tiger Woods be Tiger Woods again - or they simply won't watch. A flawed winner is fine, as long as he's winning. Ask the people who sell Kobe Bryant jerseys.
In the meantime, Tiger has resorted to trying to find little triumphs, little bits of encouragement here and there on the golf course, just one drive down the middle of the fairway, just one putt with the proper speed. He and caddie Steve Williams worked Tuesday on keeping Tiger's head still. And there might be another coach and a new swing coming.
"I've done it before," he said. "I've definitely taken pretty major steps backward in order to go forward. When I worked with Butch [Harmon, his former coach] when we tore down the swing in '97, I won one tournament in two years before I came right . . .but then I had a nice little run after that."
That nice little run produced seven major championships in 11 attempts. We may never see that Tiger Woods again. Few athletes ever hit the high note twice. But the bet here is we'll see him atop the leader board and money list and standings of all kinds again. Tiger's father, Earl, told him repeatedly as a child, then a man, to just "keep living."
Now, when Tiger hears his late dad's voice those words are more than a father's philosophy; they're the best practical advice he could get, maybe the only port in what remains a pretty intense storm.