At what point do we say this is no slump, this is who Tiger Woods really is? What if the former Wonder Boy is just a sour complainer named Eldrick whose manners are as lousy as his play is disappointing?
We could have an endless debate about whether Woods has lost his golf swing, but he's in definite danger of losing something else, and that's the good opinion of his audience. The Woods who played in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills this week was not an especially great player, nor was he a very good guy. Among the things that Woods blamed for his final round of 76, his worst final round in an Open since turning pro, and 10-over-par finish: the weather, the United States Golf Association, modern photography, the press and his former coach, Butch Harmon.
My first suggestion for Woods's immediate and long-term recovery is that he spend four years in the Peace Corps. Planting crops in Ethiopia or Zaire while teaching children to read and write would have a salutary effect on his attitude, which at the moment resembles that of a spoiled Venetian princess.
Woods called Shinnecock "out of control" and "unfair" and said, "This is not the way the game is supposed to be played." It was a less-than-gracious tribute to the gripping duel between winner Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson, who seemed to play just fine. Woods also criticized the USGA for not anticipating a cold front in making the greens too fast and hard. And he took exception to distractions he said were imposed on him by the press. "Unfortunately, I had to deal with some other stuff here with you guys that I shouldn't have had to deal with," he said.
Woods apparently believed we shouldn't have troubled him about the goon behavior of his caddie, Steve Williams. Or about his former coach Harmon's opinion, apparently quite accurate, that Woods is not in control of his golf ball.
Let's get something straight: Woods is a 28-year-old professional who is responsible for the direction of his own career, and he is equally responsible for the detestable conduct of his caddie, who needs to keep his hands and feet to himself. Unfortunately, Woods doesn't seem to see it this way, and even appears to subtly encourage Williams.
Woods was standing on the second tee during the final round Sunday, when he was bothered by the noise from a spectator's camera. His caddie turned and marched angrily 25 yards over to a section of the gallery, where he plunged three deep into a crowd of people, and pulled the offending camera away from a spectator, who turned out to be an off-duty police officer. The rest of the gallery responded with uncomfortable murmurs.
"Chill out, Steve!" someone yelled.
It was the second time this week Williams had accosted someone following Woods. On Friday, Woods was taking a practice swing on the 10th tee when Williams kicked a camera from the hands of New York Daily News photographer John Roca. Nor was this the first tournament in which Williams has behaved this way. In 2001 he grabbed a camera from a spectator and threw it in a lake.
Woods not only failed to apologize for Williams, he shrugged it off. "I think it built up over the entire week of dealing with a lot of different distractions that we normally don't have to face at a regular tournament," he said Saturday.
Cameras are not allowed on the golf course, but that's a matter for the course marshals, not a bullying caddie. In response to Sunday's incident, USGA Executive Director David Fay sent word to Williams to leave spectators alone and that if he had a problem, to take it up with the marshals.
The person who needs reprimanding is not Williams, but Woods. The bag that Williams carries says "Tiger Woods" on the side, and the rules of golf clearly state that the player is responsible for his caddie's actions. Furthermore, it was the opinion of Daily News photographer Roca that Woods sent the caddie after him with a nod of his head. "He sics him on people," Roca says. Roca was interviewed by the USGA, which hopefully will sanction both Woods and Williams.
It's time to see Williams's churlish treatment of the public for what it is: a direct reflection of Woods's own attitude toward the public. If Williams is out of line, it's because Woods allows it. And maybe it's time, too, to see Woods for the man he is becoming. At the age of 28, Woods has won eight major championships, but he's also fired a half-dozen of the people closest to him. They include his agent, his lawyer, his caddie, the head of his foundation, his coach and a girlfriend.
Harmon was fired by Woods two years ago, after coaching him since Woods was 16. This week Harmon mildly observed while working as an analyst for Sky TV that Woods appears confused about his swing and seems to be working on the wrong things. Harmon expressed it in a kindly way, but Woods responded defensively.
"I don't know why he would say anything like that," Woods said. "Obviously, he doesn't know what I'm working on. . . . If you go say something like that, you go right up to my face and say it."
NBC analyst Johnny Miller, who may be the most truthful voice in sports television, summed up Woods's reaction. Miller said, "What's really amazing is to notice with [Harmon's] comments, which were very benign I thought, and actually trying to be helpful, is how sensitive the players are to anything that isn't just lamby-pamby nice."
On NBC Sunday morning, Harmon made another observation about Woods, and this one was a little more harsh: "I think the bottom line is, if we look at the Tiger Woods of 2000 it's a different person. When I listen to him interviewed, when Tiger Woods in the past would have a bad round, like he's had numerous times this year ball-striking wise, he would tell you, 'I played really poorly, my short game saved me; I'm going to the range to figure it out.' We don't hear that anymore."
Instead, what we hear is Woods's insistence that he is "close" to playing great again -- if only there weren't all of these things and people and bad breaks getting in his way.
Harmon knew Woods's game better than anyone at one time, but you got the sense from listening to him this week that he didn't recognize the player, or the person, who came to Shinnecock. Has Woods changed? Perhaps. Woods himself attributes it to getting older. "I've grown up," he said Sunday. "It's maturity." If so, then you have to wonder how much we're going to like the man he's become.