Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Is Tiger Woods A Contender At The U.S. Open?

Take a journey back in time with me for a moment, if you will. It’s Father’s Day 2008, and Tiger Woods is limping to the 72nd green at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The birdie putt he’s facing is one of the biggest of his life: if he makes it, he’ll force an 18 hole playoff with Rocco Mediate the next day; if he misses, he’ll go home empty handed, with his first ever blown 54 hole lead at a Major Championship.
The fact that Woods even had a birdie putt to force the playoff was incredible. Two days after the championship, Tiger revealed that he was having season ending knee surgery on a leg that was so screwed up that it forced him to play the entire tournament on basically one leg. That faulty knee had been plaguing him for months, and it had severely limited his ability to play in the weeks leading up to the Open, which sapped a significant about of match practice. Woods had also hit his drive on the 72nd hole into a bunker, and then fired his second shot into the rough. To force the playoff, he would need to hit a beautiful approach shot onto the green in a spot that would place him close enough to the hole to give him a realistic chance of sinking a birdie putt.
We all know what happened, of course. Woods knocked the ball to within 12 feet, and then dramatically rolled in his birdie putt, taking in the cheers from the fans around the 18th green as he busted out a classic Tiger fist pump.

The next day, Tiger defeated Mediate in the playoff, needing a 19th hole to finish him off. He captured his 14th major that day, and won the career Grand Slam for the third time, becoming only the second golfer (after Jack Nicklaus) to do so. At just 32, we would’ve believed any outcome for his career. 25 majors? Sure, why not? He’ll definitely pass Jack’s 18 majors, right? It seemed inconceivable that he wouldn’t.
It’s incredible how things have changed. Since then, there’s been the highly publicized divorce and affairs, a million different knee and back injuries, an embarrassing DUI photo, countless numbers of TV talking heads psycho-analyzing him on a daily basis, and perhaps most shockingly, no major championships.
We all wanted Woods to compete at Augusta back in April. Tiger was back, right? He’d competed well at some tournaments, by his own admission, he was as healthy as he’d been in years, and he’d been wildly successful at the Masters before. “He’ll be in contention on Sunday!” we all said. Or hoped.
I remember watching his entire first round, waiting for the old Tiger to appear. He never showed up. His drives were more than adequate that day, but a few poor iron shots, coupled with his below average putting, doomed him to a 1 over 73, seven shots behind the leader Jordan Spieth. To have a realistic chance to be a contender on the weekend, he’d need to shoot about 4 under on Friday. Instead, he went the other way, shooting a 3 over 75, putting him a +4 for the tournament, and 13 shots behind the eventual winner, Patrick Reed. Sure, it was impressive when Tiger shot a 3 under 69 on Sunday, but it came in a round that was about as pressure-free as you can get on a Sunday at Augusta, considering he didn’t have a chance in hell at winning at that point.
Obviously, winning a major, or even contending for one, is extremely difficult, but it used to not be that way for Tiger. From the ’99 PGA Championship to the ’02 U.S. Open, Woods won seven of the 11 majors, including his famous “Tiger Slam”, when he won four consecutive majors from the ’00 U.S. Open to the ’01 Masters. After missing out on all the majors during 2003 and 2004, Woods regained his form starting in 2005. From the ’05 Masters to the ’08 U.S. Open, Woods captured six of the 14 majors, and finished in the top four 6 other times. In the 46 majors he played in from the ’97 Masters until the ’08 U.S. Open, he won 14 majors, finished in the top five 25 times, landed in the top ten 29 times, and only missed the cut once.
I think it’s time we admit what Tiger is at this point: assuming he can stay healthy, he’s an average pro who will be able to occasionally compete at majors, as long as the course isn’t too difficult and the weather is comfortable and predictable. Other times, he’ll shoot three consecutive rounds at par or worse, like he did in this year’s Masters. Due to his multiple injuries, he’s lost the ability to physically overpower a golf course, but what I’d be more concerned about if I was hoping for another Tiger major victory is what appears to be his lack of competitive fire. Sure, it’s possible he was just happy to be out there playing in a major again, something he hadn’t done since 2015, but he was smiling when Tom Rinaldi interviewed him the clubhouse after his first round +1 at Augusta. And after his final round, he offered up this summation of his weekend: “Obviously, it didn't pan out. I didn't hit my irons good enough, I didn't make enough birdies, I made too many mistakes. But overall, it was fun to be able to compete again and play in the Masters.”
Fun to be able to compete? That sounds like something some no-name pro would say after he finished his first time at Augusta, not something you’d expect from arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Awesome, you competed and made the cut, but you also finished 16 shots back of the winner, and over par for the tournament. And you were playing your best golf in years coming into the tournament, and were even the betting favorite at one point coming into the weekend. I’m not saying you tear the clubhouse apart, but I expected a little more disappointment than that.
Then again, maybe he’s just worn down from it all. All the (justified) criticism of his personal life, the destruction of his body, the loss of his dominance at the thing he was better at than anyone else…. Maybe he’s just comfortable with being average. Maybe he’s just used to it.
His ‘08 U.S. Open triumph was many surgeries, multiple breakups, and an innumerable amount of “What’s Wrong With Tiger Woods?” articles and stories ago. Seriously, think about how long ago that was. When Tiger defeated Rocco in that playoff, George W. Bush was still the president, Nick Saban had won exactly zero SEC and national championships at Alabama, LeBron James was still two years away from joining the Heat, The Dark Knight was more than a month away from appearing in theaters, and “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne was the number 1 song in the country.
The guy that closed out tournaments with ease when he had a 54 hole lead, and the guy that caused opposing players to cower in fear as they saw his name climbing the leaderboard, isn’t coming back. The guy who chipped in a miracle birdie at 16 during the ’05 Masters won’t be making a reappearance. Neither will the Tiger who set the scoring record at Augusta during the ’97 Masters, nor the Tiger who won the ’00 U.S. Open by a record fifteen strokes.

I’m going into this U.S. Open weekend hoping Tiger magically regains his form, putts like the old Woods, and fist pumps his way to another major. It’d be the best story in sports this year, maybe even the decade, if the fallen former champion was able to climb the mountain again and capture his 15th major. That seems pretty improbable though, considering the difficulty of the course he’ll be facing this weekend. Shinnecock Hills is hosting its fourth U.S. Open, and the winning scores the previous three times were -4, even par, and -1. There’s not much margin for error here, and Woods won’t be able to make up some of the gaps in his putting by outdriving everyone, since he’s lost the ability to launch the ball off the tee further than everyone else by his own admission. I foresee another middle of the road finish for Tiger this weekend, and maybe even four consecutive rounds over par. 

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