When Woods dissects how his friend Michael Jordan coped with eroding skills as he aged, he’s also telling us how he hopes to adapt his golf swing, after four knee surgeries, so that he can be a champion again.
When he celebrates the often-berated LeBron James, his words, surely, must reflect his own wishes: that he eventually be seen as a man capable of identifying and improving his weaknesses, ignoring criticism and prevailing.
“What he did in the finals is just absolutely amazing. Actually the whole year, people forget he was MVP. He showed every single facet of his game. Things he needed to work on versus last year showed up and they didn’t just show up, but they were dominant,” Woods said. You may have noticed the new Tiger isn’t trying for Most Popular Kid in Class anymore.
“I think we should all look at what he’s done,” Woods said of James. “It’s just fun to sit back and watch one of the greatest players ever to play.”
Woods never mentions his feelings about the grilling his private life has received. But his emotions peek out when he mentions talking with Wayne Gretzky about the changing 24/7 media cycle. “There are so many media platforms now that people are trying to get their voices heard,” Woods said, “and somehow screaming the loudest and critiquing the hardest is [a way] for people to actually know who’s saying something.”
Instead of stopping at Haters Will Hate, and hating back, Woods has gone a step further than many of us would; he tries to understand why.
Some subjects are still too fresh and raw for Woods to discuss candidly, or perhaps even face yet himself. Tied for the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open two weeks ago, he completely crumbled on the weekend, shooting 75-73, including a 6-over-par collapse on the first six holes on Sunday.
Somewhere there is someone in golf who did not think it was a huge and obvious step backward for Woods in his pursuit of more major titles. Somewhere there’s a knowledgeable observer of the game who didn’t think it was a textbook crack under pressure by an athlete who wanted the prize too much to be able to function with precision and composure.
Shock of shocks, that person has been found and it’s Tiger. “I didn’t quite get everything out of my rounds. I was so close on Saturday,” said Woods. “Being off a fraction, certainly it showed up on Saturday and the beginning of Sunday for sure.”
Rationalization on this spectacular scale, at least for mass consumption, is rare in golf. Except for Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson and every other player ranked No. 1 or 2 in the world in the last 30 years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. Farcical avoidance of the obvious, to minimize mortification, must not be fatal to great golfers.
Maybe it’s even essential. It sure is universal. Ignore it and move on.
In perhaps his most revealing comments, however, Woods sought no disguise at all. At 36, he very much sees himself adapting to age and injury in the same way as Jordan. And he also thinks that his path back to winning more major championships, later this year or in ’13, is almost identical to a process — full of frustration — that he’s endured twice before.
“We saw it with M.J. He couldn’t jump over everybody and eventually learned a different shot,” Woods said. “He mastered going off his right hand, left shoulder. He could fade away either shoulder. To me it’s just amazing to watch player development like that.”
Are Woods’s swing changes after injuries similar to Jordan’s adjustments with age? “Absolutely,” he said. “I didn’t want to play the way I did because it hurt, and it hurt a lot. Was I good at it? Yeah, I was good at it, but I couldn’t go down that road. There’s no way I could have had longevity.
“Four knee surgeries later, here we are. I finally have a swing that I am still generating power. But it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
The cost of ingraining the Sean Foley swing, on top of the old memory paths of the Hank Haney and Butch Harmon swings, has been a serious neglect of the rest of Woods’s game — for a couple of years.
“Certainly my short game is something that has taken a hit. It did the same thing when I was working with Butch and . . . with Hank . . . Eventually I get where the full game becomes very natural feeling and I can repeat it day after day. [Then] I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again.”
In Woods’s practice routine, putting is part of short game. Can a man, once as great as any putter, neglect the short stick for three long periods in a dozen-year span and still reclaim it like a hat checked at the restaurant door?
So far in his career, the most accurate analyst of Woods, and sometimes the only one, has been Tiger. So, put me in the benefit of the doubt category on “more majors still to come.” Woods makes his case very simply: all three of his returns from swing changes have had a similar arc. Though 0-for-his-last-16 majors is certainly a new record.
“I went through a period there in ’97, ’98 where I didn’t really do anything in major championships and then finally I had a pretty good year in ’99 at the beginning. I won a few tournaments, and then finally put it all together at the PGA,” said Woods, whose two PGA Tour wins this year, a third certainly possible by Sunday, would fit a similar pattern.
“And the same thing when, was it ’03, ’04, I didn’t really do anything in the majors and finally put it together in ’05 and ’06. I’ve been through this before, been through a process like this,” he said.
Until the last three months, with his wins at Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus’s events, then his 36-hole tie for the lead at the Olympic Club, there was plenty of room for doubt. Now, the balance has probably shifted. When Sam Snead’s name came up, Woods said, “Amazing. He won at Greensboro when he was 52.” No, the quest for 19 majors isn’t over, not by decades.
Of James, Woods said, “It’s pretty neat to see somebody who’s that talented work on his game and then display it under the most extreme conditions.”
As usual, it wasn’t too hard to figure out whom Tiger was really talking about.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.