IN the build-up to the 144th Open – the 29th to be held over the Old Course at St Andrews – these past few days were billed as the championship where four men would say goodbye. In varying ways commensurate with their importance and celebrity, two great players, an administrator and a starter – Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Peter Dawson and Ivor Robson – have all bid adieu to golf’s oldest event.
To that list we must regretfully add a fifth name: Tiger Woods.
Tiger is not capable of winning major championships, nor a regular tour event
Like so many others in the world of golf journalism, your correspondent has been resisting the temptation to draw a line under the 14-time major champion, the man who has surely played golf better than anyone else ever has. Even Jack Nicklaus, whose all-time record of 18 Grand Slam titles seems safe for at least the foreseeable future, never quite reached the level of performance attained by Woods at the top of his game. Nicklaus, for example, never won the US Open by 15 shots or an Open by eight, as Tiger did at Pebble Beach and St Andrews in 2000. And the Golden Bear never held all four of the game’s most prestigious trophies at the same time. Tiger did.
The time has come, however, to utter out loud what would once have been unthinkable: at least as far as competing at the highest level is concerned, Woods is finished. Yes, finished. It’s done. Over. Kaput. Nae mair. His tea is officially oot. His knittin’ ripped.
There is just too much evidence to back up that assertion, both empirical and anecdotal. Consider this. Before Friday’s rain-delayed second round, Jordan Spieth and Woods had this year played 19 rounds in the same tournaments. And in those rounds, the current Masters and US Open champion hit the ball 110 times fewer than did the shell of a golfer who once dominated the game. Think about that. Every time they teed up on the same course on the same day, Spieth had to give Woods three shots a side to have a fair game.
Watching Woods, once a pleasure, has become a test of endurance. Last Thursday morning, with an east wind at pretty much his back, the formerly great man played the first half of the Old Course in 40 shots. 40. A little earlier, someone called David Lingmerth needed only 29 hits to complete those same nine holes. For Tiger, even after the (supposed) nadir that was last month’s US Open at Chambers Bay – where he shot 80-76 to miss the cut by 11 shots – this was shockingly bad golf.
His discomfort was obvious right from the first tee. The shot he hit from that hallowed turf directly in front of the iconic Royal & Ancient Golf Club was not far removed from a duff. Just how far became clear on his second shot. That was a duff, the ball disappearing into the Swilcan Burn in front of the green.
Publicly, Woods continues to tell us he is working on his game as hard as he ever has. He is making progress, he says, under the tutelage of his latest coach, Chris Como. On Tuesday, two days before he would shoot a four-over par 76 on a day when 63 men were in red figures, Woods was full of all-too-familiar bluster at the sort of pre-championship press conference we may not see him at for too much longer. At one point he had the audacity to claim he had a chance to “win the Masters this year”. If he did, no one else noticed.
“I’m playing better,” he said with a straight face. “I ended up playing well at Greenbrier (where, in his most recent start, he finished T-31). “In the final round, I hit the ball the best I’ve hit it in two years. That was nice to do. I’m hitting the ball much more solid. I’m controlling my flights. Being able to shape the ball both ways has also changed my trajectories. That’s something you have to do on this golf course.”
That last bit is true, but reasonable doubt can be cast over everything else. Tiger is not playing better; he is getting worse. The only flights Tiger controls are those in his private jet. And his trajectories are out of control. Based on what we have seen so far this year, almost every aspect of his game needs work.
All of which will come as a surprise to only a few observers. The sort of stuff we have seen these past few days is nothing new. Rather it is increasingly the norm. Right this minute, Tiger is not capable of winning major championships. Nor is he capable of winning a regular tour event. He is, in reality, a well-below average PGA Tour player.
The numbers are instructive. So far in 2015, Tiger has hit 52.86 per cent of the fairways he has aimed at. That would make him the 194th most accurate driver (out of 199) on the PGA Tour. In ‘greens in regulation’, his percentage is 61.11, “good” enough for 190th spot. But the most egregious figure is his stroke average of 72.796. Only former Masters champion Mike Weir is worse. Little wonder then, that Woods is ranked the 241st best golfer on the planet.
It is hard to look at him now and not wonder why he ever embarked on any swing changes. Four times since he won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots he has changed his method. As former USPGA champion Paul Azinger said on ESPN last week: “Everyone wanted to swing like Tiger. Except Tiger.”
Watching Tiger on the course these days, it is hard to imagine he actually wants to be there. Once you have been a champion – in his case a great champion – it must be close to impossible to either accept or enjoy this reduced reality. Right now, he is Frank Sinatra stepping on to stage with a sore throat that renders him tuneless; he is Lionel Messi coming on as a substitute for Forfar Athletic; he is Meryl Streep understudying in summer stock.
There is a growing theory that Tiger is only out there right now for financial reasons. That he is playing because his various contracts dictate that he must. If true, then the $109,837,612 he has earned in official PGA Tour prize money added to the many millions more he has amassed from his various sponsorship deals must have been dissipated to an astonishing extent.
Perhaps a more likely scenario is that Tiger has simply lost the enthusiasm and dedication that drove him to the top of the game. Perhaps no one other than Ben Hogan has ever played with such intensity. So maybe the tank is simply close to empty. Maybe the prospect of yet more hours on the range is something Tiger just can’t countenance any longer.
If so, then he need feel no shame or embarrassment. But, chances are, there will be no such admission from a still proud champion. Few public figures have more zealously guarded their real feelings on almost any subject than the soon-to-be 40-year-old Californian. In that respect at least he has never changed.