Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I’m writing this at the San Francisco airport on Monday evening, en route home after staying up all night writing my game story for SI about an epochal PGA Championship. Maybe it’s just my general loopiness, but the events of Sunday still seem surreal. I can’t quite believe Tiger coughed up his lead, and that the dude who finally took him down was Y.E. Yang, obviously a skilled golfer and a smart, funny guy to boot…but still. If you had Yang in your office pool, you get a lifetime subscription to Golf.com.
So, to the questions. I’m gratified to see all of these probing queries, because last week in the Hazeltine parking lot Jim MacKay, Phil’s caddie, buttonholed me to express his disappointment about the demise of the Hot List. I took that as a critique of my faithful readers, as if perhaps we can’t have a sharp enough dialogue to engage his interest. So let’s show Bones what we got.

“I noticed Tiger seemed to be between clubs on 17. He stopped his pre-shot routine to toss some grass, took a second to chat with Stevie (I assume regarding club selection), then promptly flew the green into the deep stuff, from which he made bogey. In that sort of situation, how much of the blame would Tiger throw on Stevie and how much of it does he put on himself?”

I was kneeling directly behind the tee for that whole sequence. TV doesn’t do justice to how uphill that shot is, and gauging the wind was confusing because the trees near the tee seemed to be bending the opposite direction as the flag, which accounts for Tiger’s indecision. In fact, Woods had peeked in Yang’s bag to figure out what club he was swinging, something I’d never seen Tiger do before with any opponent.
But once Woods pulls his club, he takes full responsibility for the outcome, as every player should. He absolutely flushed the shot and was obviously surprised it went about five yards too long, leading to a crippling bogey. Afterward I pounced on Williams while he was packing up Tiger’s travel bag. He was surprisingly mellow and philosophical about the outcome, in part because of what happened at 17. “Best shot all week,” Williams said. “Got the wrong gust.” Maybe sometimes it’s that simple.

By the way, the one moment from the whole round that most surprised me was Woods missing the ensuing par putt. It was a tough downhill roll and Yang was likely to three-putt, which he did. That was Tiger’s golden opportunity to draw even. I’m still stunned he didn’t will that one into the cup. Tiger-woods-hank-haney-ship “What is the general consensus among the press about the Tiger and Haney relationship? I just don't think Haney is a good fit for Tiger. The Tiger of old would have taken a 4-shot lead after 36 holes and turned that into a victory margin of 10 shots. That just doesn't happen anymore. He seems to always be struggling with one aspect of his game. I think Tiger needs to switch coaches, but I don't know who could be better for him than Butch was.”

Definitely a lot of chatter on this topic in the wake of a missed cut at Turnberry and now Tiger’s stunning weekend demise. Friday night I texted Haney. I was hoping to do an interview for what I assumed would be a piece celebrating Tiger’s triumph. Even in the best of times Haney can be a touch defensive. He wrote back, "This is very premature and after the tournament we can talk. By the way, I haven’t been fired yet, Tiger Woods has won 22 of his last 40 tournaments on the  PGA Tour.” I buzzed him again Sunday night, asking to do an interview in an attempt to make sense of it all. Hank’s reply? “He lost. 22 of last 41.” Sensing that, at best, texting was the only way I’d get any information, I wrote back: "What did you see in his putting today?” “He missed.” End of correspondence.

After the final round Woods laid all the blame on his putting, which isn’t really Haney’s department. It will be interesting to see what happens with them. Tiger turned to Haney after getting skunked in the majors in 2003. Going oh-fer-’09 will certainly lead to another period of self-examination. Bottom line is Tiger has won the Masters with three different swings. He can be dominant without a swing coach, but he’s a tinkerer who needs to be working on something to stay engaged. If he’s not getting what he needs from Haney then he’ll move on, just as he did in dumping Butch.  The name I keep hearing as a would-be successor is Dale Lynch, the low-key Aussie who has worked with Geoff Ogilvy, among many others. But that's just press room conjecture, so take it for what it's worth, which isn't much.

“Is it just me or did Tiger employ a little bit of gamesmanship in an effort to intimidate Yang? On one hole he was standing in Yang's field of vision while Yang was putting instead of standing behind him. On another occasion Yang missed a putt and was walking up to tap in when Woods walked into his space as if to try to force Yang to mark. I can imagine Tiger's reaction if a playing partner in the last round of a major encroached on his space.”

Good spots, and to that list you can add a couple of times when it seemed like Woods was crowding Yang on the tee box. The most egregious thing I saw came on 17. As soon as Yang’s par putt peeled by the hole Woods stomped off toward the 18th tee. It’s bad form not watch your partner putt out, especially if you’re Tiger, because as soon as he bolted thousands of fans and innumerable jabronis inside the ropes started moving with him even as Yang still faced his bogey try. It was only a short putt, but I thought Tiger’s early departure was pretty bush.

“Should Tiger have putted out on the final hole? That way giving Yang the spotlight?”Nah, it wasn’t the right situation. If Yang was leading by three or four strokes it would have been appropriate, but the tournament was still up for grabs, as Yang could have charged his putt past the hole.  I’m sure it pained Woods to have to watch Yang’s lusty celebration while he was lining up his par putt, but once Y.E. calmed down Tiger caught his eye and said, "Good job, man.” I thought that was pretty cool.Pad-harrington-pga-sun-4_600 “What's your take on Paddy's second straight Sunday meltdown? That quintuple bogey on #8 was horrific. Will he be able to shake it off or will there be lasting damage?” I was willing to excuse the 8 at Firestone because of the slow-play distraction and the fact that Woods was in with a birdie and Paddy was trying to make a heroic par to keep pace. What happened at Hazeltine was completely unforced and much more damaging. I love Harrington’s fighting spirit, and listening to him talk last week I truly believed he was enjoying doing battle with Woods and that he was maybe the only guy in golf with the spine to stand up to the great man. Now you have to wonder how much scar tissue Harrington has. Guys have gotten the chip-yips for far more prosaic failings.
The only upside for Harrington—and everybody else—is that Woods’s intimidating aura of invincibility also took a major hit last week. Harrington and Woods are both fighters, and they’ll both be keynote players next year. But there’s no doubt both will be under more scrutiny in crunch time because of their failings at the PGA.

“I saw Geoff Ogilvy's criticism of the setup at Hazeltine — while I think there's some validity to it, I can't help but think his comments are more indicative of a salty attitude for someone who seemed poised for a career year early on but fizzled significantly in the majors. Is there still reason to believe Ogilvy can win multiple majors, or does his win at Winged Foot look more flukish now than ever before?”

I think Ogilvy is too smart for his own good. I appreciate his love of golf course architecture and enjoy his critiques, but he needs to shut up and just play the course that is presented. Nicklaus used to say he liked to hear guys complaining about a course setup because he knew they were already beat. I love Ogilvy’s game, but he’s shown a distressing inability to get it done in the majors. Winged Foot was not a fluke—he’s backed it up with some big victories and stellar showings in the Match Play—but he need to change his mental approach to the majors. I think he’ll figure it out.“Do you think Tiger will win a major next year?”

Will the sun rise in the East? Will Rory McIlroy have a hot girlfriend? The Opens go to Pebble and St. Andrews, where Tiger was unstoppable in 2000 and 2005. It would be a major upset if he didn’t win at least one of two. Also, Woods has won only one of the last seven Masters. The evolution of Augusta National into a tighter, more penal test has diminished Tiger’s advantage, but he’s been in the hunt virtually every year and you’d have to says he’s overdue for a fifth green jacket. Whistling Straits is a venue that doesn’t really favor anyone so, for the time being, I’m picking Y.E. Yang to repeat.

Photos: Robert Beck/SI (Haney and Woods); Fred Vuich/SI (Harrington)

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