TWO days from now, the man who once played golf at an exalted level never before seen – and never replicated since – will enter his 40th year on the planet he used to rule absolutely. He will also tiptoe into 2015 with many questions to answer, the biggest of which will determine just how interesting and attractive the professional game is likely to be over the next 12 months: does Tiger Woods, armed with yet another set of swing thoughts, still have what it takes to win one or more major championships?
There are, of course, many reasons to suppose that such a scenario is unlikely at best. His age is a factor. And fitness. Not only is Tiger edging closer to the big four-oh, his body has endured more than the normal share of setbacks over the years, most notably in the lumbar region, knees and, perhaps most significantly, mind.
Then there is the fact that the 14-time major champion has less than four months to – depending on what you believe – either re-learn his old swing or bed in a new one before the Masters in April. And let’s not forget the horror show that was his short game in the recent Hero World Challenge, where Tiger chunked/duffed/chilli-dipped and/or thinned as many as nine seemingly straightforward chips. With no cool way to lay the sod over or “knife” such shots, it was an embarrassingly inept display.
Still, one can easily argue that such high-handicap clumsiness was merely a short-term effect, the result of focusing almost all of his practice time on the long game, to the detriment of his work on and around the putting surface. And – even if his former coach, Hank Haney, famously pooh-poohs the notion of “rustiness” by pointing out that bad swings/shots are bad swings/shots no matter the circumstances – the fact Tiger was playing competitively for the first time in four months must surely have contributed to his obvious problems.
Then again, the idea that a golfer approaching middle age can re-build a swing for what will be at least the fourth time is for some a fanciful notion. Talking last week to the @BytheMinGolf podcast, leading swing coach and CBS commentator Peter Kostis said: “Tiger needs to stay motivated. He needs to think he is constantly getting better. I’ve seen this so many times in my career. Guys think they’re doing the right things to get better then end up doing the wrong things. Seve Ballesteros did it. Curtis Strange did it. A whole litany of players have gone to new instructors and been decimated by the changes.
“It is my opinion that your golfing DNA is set in stone by the time you are in your mid-teens. You can’t change it. Yes, you can eat healthily. You can exercise. You can abstain from alcohol and smoking. All of those things will maximise your DNA. But you can’t change who you are. So, in the process of going from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney to Sean Foley, I think Tiger lost who he was. Instead of being a swinger of the club, he became a ‘bodier’ of the club. In that sense, he was going backwards.”
That much has been obvious, especially since the move from Haney to Foley. Even when he was playing well enough to win five events over the course of the 2013 season, Woods was unable to contend seriously in any of the four events that mean most to him. If that trend continues in 2015, he isn’t going to pick up the five Grand Slam titles he needs to pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Indeed, when he drives up Magnolia Lane towards the Augusta National clubhouse in early April, almost seven years will have passed since Tiger picked up his 14th major victory, the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines. Even if it can be assumed he hasn’t quite forgotten how to win, it is hardly fanciful to think the happy memories are not as sharp as they once were.Many, in fact, have already come close to writing off Woods’ chances of overhauling the Golden Bear.
“I think his age lessens the chance of him passing Jack,” said seven-time major champion Arnold Palmer earlier this year. “It’s going to be tough to keep the concentration and the game necessary to win majors. And the fact these young guys – Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler – are tough and strong and if they continue to play as well as they’ve been playing, it’s going to be tough.”
Greg Norman is apparently just as sceptical. “Tiger, when he dominated, had a single-shot approach,” declared the Great White Shark. “It was only about the golf. Now there are so many distractions and people are looking for things that are wrong with Tiger now, so he’s got to deal with that on a day-to-day basis, like every other mortal has to do. In our lives, in our business, we all have to be responsible for our actions. It’s very hard for him to have that focus. And the more he shuts people off, the worse it gets.”
Still, no matter the many and varied doubts emanating from the knowledgeable mouths of those who have been there and done that, all true golf fans will be hoping Woods can rebound.
Whether he can make it back to a level of form that will at least challenge new world No.1 McIlroy remains to be seen, though. Back around the turn of the century, the next-best players of the “Tiger Era” – Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson – never once seriously challenged their mutual bête noir in a major championship. So the prospect of Woods and McIlroy going at it down the stretch in any of the four is even more enticing.
“Tiger moves the needle,” pointed out Kostis. “He’s a lot like Muhammad Ali was years ago. Half the audience tuned in to see him get knocked out; the other half wanted to see him do the same to someone else. But 100 per cent tuned in. Tiger is the same way; he’s a lightning rod. It’s not going to be easy for him going forward, though. He will have to compete against young guns, none of who have scar tissue from his dominance circa 1997 to 2005.
“I’ve seen many great drivers of the ball, from Sam Snead to Ben Hogan to Nicklaus to Tom Weiskopf to Norman and none ever drove as well as Rory did in the last 12 months. For power, for control, for accuracy, no one has come close to what he did in 2014. So Rory is better than Tiger ever was with a driver. But there is a lot more to golf. Rory doesn’t have the same mental tenacity Tiger had at his peak. He hasn’t quite mastered the art of making the critical putt, as Tiger did in the past. But Tiger isn’t there right now either.”
Maybe not. But let’s hope he rediscovers it soon. Golf needs Tiger. And the next year will go a long way towards telling us just how much he still needs golf.