Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins

In overhauling his golf game, Tiger Woods has lost his identity

This hopey-changey thing is not working for Tiger Woods. He’s changed his swing, fired his caddie, switched his reliable old putter, and even tried to alter his looks, via that patch of scruff on his chin. These aren’t the hallmarks of stability, much less of a winner. The only thing recognizable about Woods as he enters the PGA Championship is his same old glacial arrogance.

Woods has had many identities, from ironed corporate pitchman to closet womanizer to too-cool-to-shave bearded guy. His latest is Secret Genius Whose Greatness is Incomprehensible to the Ordinary Observer. Last week he ranked dead last in the Bridgestone Invitational field in driving accuracy, yet he would have us believe that his real problem is that he’s striking the ball almost too well. These refinements in his game are so exquisitely abstruse that we apparently can’t perceive them, much less understand. “I don’t want to explain it to you guys,” he said.

After a 12-week layoff to recover from knee and Achilles’ tendon injuries, Woods has returned to competitive golf with the declaration, “I’m not like other guys.” No? That begs the question: then why is he trying to look like other guys, and swing like other guys? Why the little goatee borrowed from Jason Day? Why the continual tinkering with his strokes? In order to more perfectly imitate Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose?

Woods is on a search party to find himself and he doesn’t seem close to meeting himself in the mirror yet. He continues to insist he is just one small breakthrough from greatness again, when in reality, “He’s well below what he used to be,” says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. His performance last week — a tie for 37th in a field of 76 with a score of 1 over par in the Bridgestone — wasn’t much better than it seemed, despite Woods’s avowal that he was “encouraged.” Certainly, unevenness was natural after a layoff. But mostly what we saw from Woods was the same consistently inconsistent play that has plagued him for two years now: sprayed tee shots and three-putts. It’s to the point that you wonder if this is the real him. Maybe Woods can turn his game around in time to win his first major since 2008, but it seems unlikely.

“I’d be shocked,” Chamblee says. “You’ve got to drive the ball better than he’s driving it to compete in a major. I see him missing big shots at the big moment. He can’t string enough good shots together to get on a run and get confident, because he’s going to have a hiccup. He drives it way right, or way left, or misjudges a distance, or misses a short putt.”

The numbers don’t lie. Woods hit only 22 of 56 fairways last week, and he was in the bottom half of the field in putting, too, tied for 43rd. If he doesn’t recognize how he struggled to hold his rounds together, others do. According to Nick Faldo, “They’ve recognized that Tiger’s definitely lost his aura right now and they kind of are saying to themselves, ‘Tiger has an awful lot on his plate, I don’t need to worry about it.’ ”

The last time Woods played great golf, from 2007 to 2009, his accuracy off the tee was in the 66 percent range. This season, it’s just 49.6 percent. Driving accuracy has never been the ultimate bell-weather of Woods’s game, and it can be deceptive: There are occasions when a miss is actually a great shot, say on a drive-able par-4, or a long par-5 when he cuts a dogleg. But there’s nothing deceptive about the fact that Woods found just one fairway on the back nine on Sunday, and drove it so poorly he was 5 over par for a seven-hole stretch.

Woods still strikes his irons beautifully enough to resemble a dominating champion for shorts bursts — until he three putts or misses two-footers. Woods never used to three-putt. But in the Masters in April, he led the field with six of them. He had four more at Bridgestone in the first three rounds, provoking him to again ditch his reliable old Scotty Cameron for a newer Nike.

Here’s what it looks like to those of us uninitiated into the mysteries of Woods’s ultra-sophisticated game: It looks like he feels more confusion than comfort when he swings his driver, no matter what he says, and the same is becoming true of his putter since he first switched to the Nike at St. Andrews in 2010. It looks like he has to fight with every tool in his bag to make up for his erratic play on the tee and the green, and it’s a good thing he’s still one of the finest iron players in the world, because otherwise it could get really ugly. It looks like he doesn’t concentrate like he used to. And it sounds like he’s starting to make excuses, some of which don’t add up or make sense.

Here is Woods talking about his putting: “The path wasn’t very good going back,” he said. “It was underneath the path and it was under the plane, and it was just not very good.”

In Chamblee’s opinion, Woods has lost his fundamentals in a miasma of shifting grips, stances and alignments; a dissatisfied search for something. His periodic dismantling of himself Chamblee finds “completely unnecessary” and “bizarre,” given how much success Woods has enjoyed. Even in 2009, when his marriage and public image fell apart, he still won nine times worldwide. There was no reason for the ill-applied, hyperanalytical overhaul by his latest coach, Sean Foley.

Woods has always been swing obsessive, but now, mimicking the language of Foley, he dwells on compression and angles, start lines and deviation. “He traded his old fundamentals for a new vogue, geeky golf stuff,” Chamblee says. “Instead of a sport he turned it into a science project.”

Until Woods decides the project is finished — until he has a firmer identity in general — don’t expect him to lift a major championship trophy.

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