Watching Tiger Woods the last two weekends has been inspiring, distressing and mystifying to golf fans. The more Woods plays his heart out in narrow defeats, the more obvious it becomes that his golf swing is a wreck.
For the first six seasons of his career, Woods looked like the heir to Jack Nicklaus. For the past two years, however, the golfer he has resembled most has been the imaginative, courageous, competitive but fundamentally flawed Seve Ballesteros, the man with the erratic driver from hell.
If Woods doesn't get his swing fixed, presumably by his old coach Butch Harmon, before his mistakes become ingrained, then the Tiger we see in the future may be more like Seve than Jack. And that would be a great shame for the entire game.
In both the Byron Nelson Classic on Sunday and the Wachovia Championship, Woods finished just one shot out of a tie for a playoff. On the surface, that would seem to indicate that he is playing better, recovering from his streak of seven winless majors, and that, by next month at Shinnecock Hills, he may be ready to contend for his third U.S. Open crown.
However, the eye sometimes sees more than the scoreboard tells. Woods doesn't just hit the ball into the rough these days. He drives it into forests and housing developments, lakes and wildlife sanctuaries. If he even plays in San Diego, they need to give pith helmets to the lions at the zoo. Some players have to "recover" or "scramble." Tiger has to use MapQuest to find his tee ball.
Remember Woods's swing in 2000, when he attacked the ball more violently than any player who ever lived, yet also had the best balance you ever saw? He looked like a machine made out of steel, anchored to the ground, or a video simulation of a human. People on the tee would gasp when he finished his swing.
These days, that swing is gone. Woods wobbles, he leans, he looks like us. The only gasps come when you realize, "Oh, Lord, there goes another one into the squirrel condos."
Right now, Woods is a lost golfer, especially with a driver in his hand. It's commonplace for any analyst with a split-screen to illustrate how his shoulders and his club are not working in the same plane, as they once did. At the Nelson, he hit only 23 of 54 fairways. For the season, he ranks 159th out of 185 players on the PGA Tour with 56.2 percent driving accuracy. Last season, he was 142nd in accuracy. That's not a little slump. It's a catastrophe. In '99 and '00, Woods hit 71.3 and 71.2 percent off the tee.
Tiger no longer has any significant distance advantage off the tee either. While his length and equipment have stayed much the same throughout his career, the whole field has caught him in distance -- thanks to juiced-up clubs and balls.
Since '97, Woods has averaged 293 to 299 yards off the tee every season. However, in '97, only eight other players on the whole tour could even average 281 yards. Like Nicklaus in the '60s, Woods was playing a different sport than 95 percent of his foes. By last season, 134 other tour players averaged at least 281 yards and 48 averaged more than 290. Most important, the players who are closest to Woods in ability -- or who may be ahead of him now in ball striking -- are just as long or longer than he is. And Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Davis Love III are far straighter off the tee, too.
If the name "Woods" were not on his bag and we merely looked at Tiger's performance over the last two seasons, few would wonder whether this man can win 10 more major championships in his career. We are not looking at a minor slump here or a brief experiment with "happiness" and marriage that has temporarily distracted a great and fanatical artist. The Tiger of the last two seasons is a radically different, and much diminished golf animal.
In his first six seasons, Woods ranked fourth, 30th, first, first, fifth and first in greens-in-regulation. Last season he stumbled to 28th and is now 68th. Another tour statistic, which incorporates driving distance, driving accuracy and greens-in-regulation is "ball striking." Once, Woods dominated it, finishing fourth, 12th, first, first, 12th and second. Last year, he fell to 26th and is now 65th, between Mathias Gronberg and J.J. Henry.
At some point, a sufficiently erratic swing can undermine any amount of improvisation, scrambling, putting and, in Woods's case, indefinable virtuoso genius. For example, on the 72nd hole Sunday, Woods needed a birdie to get into a four-way playoff. A long, straight drive was essential. Woods hit a hook so wild it even missed the 10-deep gallery on the fly. Woods never changed expression or showed anger. Not because he has command of himself, though he does, but because he has hit so many similar shots under pressure for the last 16 months that he now expects it.
The off-the-planet, my-hopes-are-dead shot -- at the moment of maximum pressure and importance -- is now a part of Tiger Woods's game, like an unwanted 15th club, just like it was for Greg Norman, Ballesteros and, until this year, Mickelson.
Over the last two years, Woods has spent more time on his life and less on his golf. That transition was certainly necessary, but it has left him vulnerable. An impending marriage, funny commercials and a fuller range of public emotion are all to be welcomed. But, eventually, it would be nice to have the Old Tiger -- or something close to him -- back among us again.
What we are watching is a player who, though he can still contend at tour stops, is only slightly more likely to win any particular major championship than several other fine golfers who are now in their prime. At some point, Woods has to face how much his game has slipped. Otherwise, he runs the distinct risk of turning into a spectacular but erratic talent like Ballesteros.
By the time Seve was 27, he had won two Masters and two British Opens. The next dozen years seemed to belong to him. But he misplaced his swing and his back -- like Woods's knee -- began to ache. The rest of his career, he won one more major.
Have a care, Tiger. Golf, if she thinks you are neglecting her, is a stern mistress.