ARDMORE, Pa. — Every time Tiger Woods doesn’t win a major, and especially when he looks as old and battered as he has here at Merion Golf Club in the U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus could have a quiet little party, like some members of the ’72 Miami Dolphins when the last undefeated NFL team gets beaten.
Nicklaus is too classy to do it. At least in part, he would probably like to see Woods win a few more major crowns because it would be good for golf, good for Woods psyche and because Bobby Jones was so gracious to Jack. Be a good guy: don’t clutch your 18-major record with all 20 bear claws.
But, for those of us assigned to analyze, it is time to be candid, not about Woods the person, about which too much is probably said, but about Woods the golfer, who is No. 1 in the world again.
View the entirety of the past five years since Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Add up the injuries, the poor putting in majors, the dwindled mystique, the raw nerves and the lost chances on weekends when he was in the picture to win his 15th major title. Look at his 76 Saturday.
It just doesn’t look like Tiger is going to make it.
You couldn’t imagine a great player in more complete denial — or, perhaps, more unwilling to admit any vulnerability in public — than Woods after a miserable third round with a birdie at No. 1, then seven bogeys. He’s been in high rough all week, had a shaky short game and putted miserably, including missing three very short putts, one of them from two feet. He has basically stunk. That’s why he’s 10 shots behind Phil Mickelson. You’d never know it from him. Does he think nobody walks the course or watches TV?
After his round, Woods described his “perfect drive” at the tough fifth hole that “ended up in a ball mark. That turned my round around,” he said.
What? Perhaps the mentally toughest player who ever lived, maybe in any sport, gets thrown off his stick by a bad lie with 31 holes left to play?
Woods’s list of excuses after his 76 would put Sergio Garcia to shame.
“I really wasn’t that far off. I couldn’t get the speed right [on the greens]. I three-putted three times the first two days. . . . I didn’t make anything today. I just couldn’t get a feel for them. Some putts were fast, some were slow,” said Woods, as if Merion’s greens, not his putting, were somehow incomprehensible and thus at fault. “It certainly is frustrating. At Augusta, I was pretty close then I hit the flag and went into the water. . . . Here, I’m playing well enough to do it and just haven’t gotten it done.”
Can’t help but wonder if he really believes any of that nonsense. If he’s just jerking around questioners, that’s his business. If he believes he’s describing golf reality, he’s got big-time “major-itis.”
Woods has seldom described his rounds accurately. Like Nicklaus, he likes to leave the impression he’s always a hair away from shooting 58. Long ago, I paced off a topped Nicklaus drive at less than 100 yards. He found three ways to describe it to reporters as a fairly normal drive.
But Woods’s descriptions of his misadventures here and in the past six majors, is almost an alternate universe.
Right now, the distance from Woods’s 14 major titles to Nickalus’s 18 seems like a hundred miles. Will Woods win more majors? Flip the questions: If a rising 20-something star had Woods’s record over the past 17 months, including six Tour wins, you’d say he was a heavy favorite to win multiple majors. But five? That’s more majors than many greats like Phil Mickelson (four) have won in their whole career.
Much that’s written and said about Woods comes out of emotion. Those who dislike him, or his behavior, root against him. Those who like or admire him see him through a different prism, still hoping he gets his game and life sorted out. I’ve been in the hope-Tiger-gets-his-game-and-life-sorted-out camp. I still am. I enjoy him. Go on, win 10 more majors.
The trajectory of his quest to be The Greatest Ever has changed profoundly. His physical decline started just as he won his last major, the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego in ’08, playing 91 holes on what turned out to be a broken leg. Soon, he had reconstructive knee surgery, his fourth surgery on the same knee. In ’11, he injured his Achilles, missed both the U.S. and British Open and missed the cut at the PGA.
Evaluating Woods’s quest to pass Nicklaus was impossible until his swing changes, his injured knee and Achilles, his divorce and all the other turbulence in his life had settled down and he regained his ability to play exceptional golf. That’s now been the case since the start of the ’12 season.
Woods is now on his third swing and has, he says, a significantly reworked private life. What he hasn’t had in the past six majors is the kind of poise when faced with opportunity that characterized his first 14 majors. It’s as if someone else won them.
In his first two rounds, Woods reacted to shots out of rough as if a hot poker had been jabbed in his elbow. Even when he won the ’08 U.S. Open on a broken leg he seldom showed more discomfort. No one doubts he has a huge pain tolerance.
Yet Woods’s total description of his problem has been “pain. It is what it is.”
When did it happen? “At the Players [five weeks ago],” said Woods.
So, he’s played with pain for more than a month, including finishing 20 shots off the winning score at the Memorial two weeks ago, but he hasn’t mentioned it? Does it really matter if his foes know his elbow hurts?
Tiger’s pattern is to try to play through his injuries, like his special-forces father, until he hurts himself worse. Woods may, once again, be tempted to force through his elbow injury more than he should.
Woods has used his body so hard, injured it in so many places, sometimes with activities that are unnecessary for even the fittest golfer, that he should not be thought of as a typical 37-year-old golfer, who still has a half-dozen prime years, at the least.
Instead, he is far more like a 37-year old NFL quarterback or big league outfielder with 2,000 games or an NBA center approaching the end.
Tiger wasn’t “close” here this week. A divot did not derail him. Before he can make the most of what’s left of his great career, especially precious weeks at the majors, he needs to look at these painful days honestly.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.