You can usually tell what kind of golf a guy is playing by how honest he is about his game. It's virtually an axiom: A player can't play great golf when he's in a state of self-deception. This is Tiger Woods's real problem.
The thing that's preventing Woods from contending in the last several major championships, including this U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, is not swing plane or ball trajectory, but plain stubbornness. The player who admits to a weakness has a chance to fix it, but when a player won't own up, you can pretty much rule him out as a contender. The day Woods quits honeying-up the condition of his swing, and instead comes out and says, "I'm hanging on by my fingernails, and I've got to do something different," is the day maybe he'll get out of this rut. Until then, we can expect more of the same from Woods: struggling from tee to rough to bunker, and then rationalizing the result.
For two days, par-70 Shinnecock has been "undefended" in the words of Phil Mickelson, vulnerable to scoring without a breath of its famed wind. Yet Woods has insisted, "It's really tough out there." Really tough for him, maybe, but clearly less so for the leaders, among whom he does not rank. Woods has been hard-pressed to break par: With rounds of 72-69 he is 1-over for the tournament and has clawed for any kind of score, while Mickelson is seven strokes ahead of him. "I'm pleased to be where I'm at," Woods said. But did anyone really believe that, including him?
Maybe he's pleased that things aren't much worse, because they could be. Through two rounds, Woods has hit only 42 percent of the fairways he's aimed at and reached only half of the greens. His two rounds have been a succession of tough saves for which he deserves much credit, of miracle wedges from the sand and long grass, and nerveless winding putts that just drop in. But when you ask Woods about the fact that he has spent so much of his time in the rough, this is the kind of thing he says. "I hit some really good shots that didn't end up in the fairway."
That's simply not the voice of a player in command of his game. It's the voice of plaintiveness. A couple of years ago, we would have said of Woods, "Just watch, tomorrow he'll shoot 65." But there is nothing in Woods's current demeanor or performance that suggests he has such a low number in him; instead, you get the feeling he is more likely to shoot 75.
"Most of the guys on that board are missing it, too," Woods said after his hard-fought 69 on Friday. Maybe so, but since when is Woods content to rank among "most of the guys"? The one at the top of the leader board is the one who counts, and Mickelson has hit 78 percent of the fairways in front of him and 83 percent of the greens he has aimed at. That's the applicable category if Woods seriously believes he can win this tournament.
The plain fact of the matter is that Woods has lost direction since he fired Butch Harmon, the swing coach who had worked with him since he was 16. It's no accident that Woods won seven of 11 majors under Harmon's tutelage. It's also not an accident that Corey Pavin has suddenly become a viable contender here, after spending the last six months working with Harmon, who is quite simply the very best at what he does. Woods's reasons for firing Harmon were obscure -- something about the relationship running its course and Harmon liking the limelight too much. The result of the firing is not obscure at all.
It's hard not to contrast Woods's obtuse attempts at self-justification with the forthrightness that Mickelson has shown in the last year, and compare the results. Mickelson sat down after a disappointing performance in 2003 and took stock: Despite his immense talent, he was winless on the PGA Tour, a comparatively low 38th on the money list, and after a third place at the Masters, he finished tied for 55th in the U.S. Open, 59th in the British Open and 23rd in the PGA. He was disaster-prone on the course and not particularly fit.
Mickelson faced up to every unpleasant truth. He went to his swing coach, Rick Smith, and "challenged" him, as he put it, to give him hard advice. For years he had been hardheaded about accepting coaching, but now Mickelson gave himself over to it. He lost weight, made the changes Smith recommended to his swing and his practice habits.
Mickelson believes that had he not experienced such a lousy season, he might never have made the changes. But the result was a career-redeeming victory in the Masters, and his presence firmly in contention here.
"There's a very good chance that having a year as rough as last year has forced me to sit down, reevaluate things and change things," Mickelson says. "I had gone along having so many close opportunities and not capitalized, I may have continued without making the necessary changes."
Woods may be forestalling a similar reckoning by saving as many pars as he does on sheer ability. It allows him to think nothing is very wrong in what he's doing. But saving yourself with miracle wedges is not the way the game is meant to be played, and on some level Woods must eventually recognize that, if he doesn't already. For all of his optimistic treacle, there is no mistaking the savageness with which he occasionally tomahawked the long grass and fescue out of frustration. And you have to wonder if the chronic surliness of his caddie, Steve Williams, isn't reflective of Woods's real mood. Williams has long been known for his rudeness, and Woods has failed to curb it. On Friday it turned into overt ugliness and ill-temper. As Woods was taking a practice swing on the 10th tee Friday, Williams strode over to New York Daily News photographer John Roca, and kicked his camera.
Woods will probably say it wasn't that bad of a shot.
I'd have more confidence in Woods's ability to put a low number on the board and challenge Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and the rest of the real contenders for this U.S. Open title if he said, as Jack Nicklaus would have, "Today was the day to shoot a 66 or a 67 and I didn't do it. So I'll have to make it up tomorrow." Those would be words to believe in.
Instead, Woods said, "You got to keep hanging around. You never know." Actually, I think we do know.