Now it is failure that has become a way of life after another major eluded him at Muirfield yesterday.
There was a time when it was almost taken for granted that he would one day equal the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, but not now. Not after 17 failed attempts to win his 15th. Not after five years during which, in the process of divorcing his wife, losing his form and sometimes his dignity, he has also shed the myth of infallibility.
His last win was at Torrey Pines in the 2008 US Open. Who’d have thought it? It has been a long road back from the night of the fire hydrant late in 2009 and, although he has travelled most of it, there is a way to go yet. The majors, for so long his focus, have become a blind spot.
There have been four Tour victories this season, a campaign in which he has returned to world No 1, but his questionable form on the weekend of a major continues to hold him back. His three-over-par 74 yesterday, which he blamed on the pace of the greens, completed a week in which his scores have grown steadily worse.
It is nothing new. In his last seven majors, his cumulative total for the first two rounds has been eight under par. In the last two rounds of those same events, he has been 25 over. The red shirt with which he used to psyche out opponents on the final day looks as though it has been in the wash too long.
Of course, it’s all relative. Woods tied for fourth at this year’s Masters. His two-over-par total here, five behind the winner, was good enough for a share of sixth. He claimed last night that he had played well all week, “hit a ton of good shots” and that he had reason to be positive about next month’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
“I’ve won 14 and in that spell where I haven’t won since Torrey, I’ve been in there. It’s not like I’ve lost my card and I’m not playing out here. So I’ve won some tournaments in that stretch and I’ve been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven’t done it yet.”
Not everyone shares his optimism. He kept his ball in play at Muirfield, where the bare, bleached fairways did not require him to use his wayward driver, but his putting, over the weekend at least, lacked conviction. The conservative strategy, which worked for him in similar conditions at Hoylake seven years ago, was exposed as inadequate by Phil Mickelson in the final round. That it was his long-time rival that lifted the Claret Jug will not have made him feel any better.
Still, at least Adam Scott, his playing partner yesterday, did not win. A victory for this year’s Masters champion, whose bag is carried by Steve Williams – Woods’ former caddie – would have been too much for him to stomach. Since the two split in 2011, only Williams has won a major.
It was just one of the elements that made their meeting, in the penultimate match, an attractive one. Woods started the day two off the pace, Scott three. Together, they were thought to be the biggest threats to Lee Westwood, the overnight leader, but neither was.
The Australian, at least, made a run at it, most notably with three straight birdies from the seventh, but the wolf whistles that he so often attracts and the flag-waving Aussies soon gave way to a faltering back nine in which four consecutive bogeys ended his challenge.
It was always going to be a long, hard day for Woods from the moment he was short with his second on the par-4 first, a shot that had him turning away in disgust. Left with a putt the length of the green, he needed three more strokes to get down, the upshot of which was a bogey that set the tone for his round.
On the fourth hole, he three-putted again, dropping another shot and raising question marks about his touch with the blade. It is not easy to be committed at Muirfield, so fiery are the greens, but time and again his efforts to cosy them down to the hole looked suspiciously tentative.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the speeds,” he said. “They were much slower today, much softer. I don’t think I got too many putts to the hole. I just couldn’t ever get the pace of these things. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week it was different.”
Not that he was giving himself many chances. “Goddammit,” he yelled from the middle of the fifth fairway, when his third shot trickled on to the wrong edge of the green, a show of frustration that would become a recurring theme.
“Fore” was the cry on the 10th tee after he had pulled his shot into the thick hay. Then there was something rather less polite when he squirted his ball across the fairway into more long stuff. As he crossed the strip of grass that his ball had conspicuously avoided, he slammed his club off the turf in a fit of pique.
There was a brief rally early on the back nine, thanks to a big putt for birdie on the 12th, and a sumptuous approach to the 14th, but another misjudgment on the following green, when he and Scott both three-putted, signalled the end for both of them.
As many headed off elsewhere to see what Mickelson was doing, a few kept the faith, shouting “in the hole” and “You da man Tiger”.
Except he isn’t. Not these days.