ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tiger Woods is starting to sound like a man who has been alone in the wild for too long. It’s unclear exactly whom he is talking to, himself or his mule, when he starts to ramble about a “baseline shift” and goes into obsessive details about how he regripped his putter because of the precise depth of the finger indentations. Maybe Woods can be a factor in the British Open at St. Andrews, but judging by his conversation, he more likely will be a factor strictly in his own mind.
Woods is always this close to winning a major championship again, even though he hasn’t actually raised a trophy in one since 2008. “I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done, but I’m still right here in front of you,” he said Tuesday.
Actually, what’s right here in front of you is a man who has fallen to 241st in the world this season with a lot of terrible golf, including three rounds in the 80s, and who seems increasingly to fashion his own delusional narrative about that.
It’s perfectly understandable for a competitor to try to convince himself he can win. All athletes practice a form of self-hypnotism and seek the positives in their performance in the name of building confidence. But Woods has crossed over into a more desperate territory of exaggerations and self-deception.
The funny thing is, until Woods opened his mouth Tuesday, there was every reason to feel he might be dangerous here. He has deep know-how on this golf course where he won the 2000 and 2005 titles. At Greenbrier a couple of weeks ago, he shot three rounds in the 60s, including a 67 in the final round — for once, a disaster-free tournament. Woods certainly deserves to be optimistic about the performance and to feel he is fully recovered from microdisc surgery last season. “I’m hitting the ball much, much more solid,” he said.
But Woods was so starved for something great to say about his game that he wasn’t happy to settle for that. Just when you started to believe him, he said something so utterly absurd about his 2015 season you wondered if he was hallucinating. It was this: “I was able to turn things around and I had a chance to win the Masters this year.”
Tiger Woods had a chance to win the Masters this year?
Did I miss something? Am I having an amnesiac spell? Is it possible I was sent to Kiribati or some other remote locale inside a locked shipping container when he had a chance to win the Masters?
Woods never had a chance to win the Masters; not even close. He trailed Jordan Spieth by fully 10 strokes entering Sunday’s final round and then missed all nine fairways on the front nine and hit just two for the day to shoot his second 73 of the week and finish tied for 17th. Oh, and he also had that weird episode where he seemed to hurt his hand and said, “My bone popped out . . . but I put it back in.” Right.
Increasingly Woods has his own version of events. He has missed the cut in two of the past three majors. He shot an 80 in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay that was his highest score ever in that tournament. But here is his account of himself from Tiger World: “Obviously the previous major championships were a little bit more difficult,” he said. “I was still learning a new golf swing.”
Woods has a new golf swing? Not just a tweak in technique — a whole new swing? Apparently so. And he was still learning that new swing as recently as June 6, when he shot a career-worst 85 at the Memorial. But since then, miraculously, Woods has mastered this new swing. And now “it has all worked out perfectly,” he says.
“Last year coming off surgery on my back and trying to get my feels back, meanwhile trying to make a swing change all at the same time was very difficult,” he said. “It would have been one thing if I would have gone through the procedure and then had the same golf swing, but I’ve changed the golf swing too on top of that, and so I had to fight both at the same time.”
It’s certainly reasonable that the lingering effects of the surgery and a swing change would lead to some bad scores. But listening to Woods expand on the topic, it’s hard not to lapse into incredulity. It turns out that the reason he played so poorly at the Memorial was because he made “a pretty big baseline shift,” and that is “actually one of the tougher things to do.”
That “baseline shift” is why he “hit the ball great” at Greenbrier. Woods says Greenbrier was some of the best ball-striking he has done in two years, which just might be true. But then he added, “And as bad as I putted that week, I was only four shots out of a playoff.”
Never mind that he was actually six shots out of the playoff. In major championships, four shots out of a playoff (or six) might as well be 40 (or 60). This isn’t basketball.
All of this is why it’s not exactly easy to believe Woods when he says he is in full command of his “trajectories” again and, “It’s nice to be out there on the course and see it and feel it again, to be able to hit all the shots.”
St. Andrews is rain-softened and wide open enough to land a jet on the fairways, but even in that state it requires real command of the ball and of the mind. What’s more, Woods is up against a deeply talented field full of free-swinging young chargers — not just Spieth, but 2010 Open champion at St. Andrews Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, and the list goes on.
They are his biggest obstacles to winning a major again — unless it might be his increasing talent for self-deception. You would feel better about Woods’s chances if he had said, “I used to win tournaments on Fridays. I can’t run away from the field anymore, especially not in this crowd, because these young guys aren’t going to surrender on the weekend. I will have to be much better than I have been, as well as a little lucky, to win another major.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.