Tiger Woods struggled to a tie for 23rd place at St. Andrews.
Robert Beck/SI
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My good friend Michael Rosenberg wrote something last week that struck me as wrong, and I could not quite figure out why. He was writing about Tiger Woods, and it began with how sick he is of reporters asking Tiger about his personal life. I agree entirely with that. But then Michael wrote this:

\nI have no idea how Woods will play this week. But I do believe two things:

\n1. The people who write him off are dead wrong.

\n2. Those people are doing him a favor.

\nSomething about this just plinked off-key for me ... but I wasn't quite sure why. At first, I thought my disagreement was with his No. 2 statement: That people who are writing off Tiger Woods are doing him a favor. I don't see that at all.

\nHere's why: I've long thought that Tiger Woods (unlike many great athletes) does not feed off of being UNDERESTIMATED, but quite the opposite — he feeds off of being OVERESTIMATED. He has spent his entire golfing life building up an aura of invincibility — see his name come up on the leaderboard and cower in fear. When Woods is in the lead, golfers try too hard to pull off shots that are not in their bags because they know — they KNOW — that he won't give it up. That's his game. Rattle them. Intimidate them. Make them fear him. I have no idea how Woods would handle being underestimated, and nobody else does, either, but I don't think it fits him at all. Tiger Woods is a frontrunner, the best in the history of golf. Every major championship he has ever won — all 14 of them — he won from the lead. He is Goliath. He has never shown even the slightest inclination for becoming David or, anyway, I haven't seen it. I don't think he's suited for a slingshot.

\nBut the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't Michael's second point that rubbed me wrong. No. It was No. 1. He wrote: "The people who write him off are dead wrong."

\nAnd I realized that my issue was this: As far as I can tell NOBODY is writing off Tiger Woods. And, frankly, by all the available evidence, we SHOULD be writing off Tiger Woods.

\nLook: Tiger Woods, by his standards, has played stunningly mediocre golf this year after taking off a few months to deal with his personal issues. He has not won a tournament — entering the British Open he was zero-for-six. This might not sound like much, but Tiger Woods only plays in the tournaments he expects to win. This year marks the first time since 1998 that he has not won one of his first six tournaments of the year.

\nAnyway, it wasn't just that he didn't win, but that he never came close to winning. He missed the cut in Charlotte, at one of his favorite events. He withdrew from the Players Championship with some sort of neck thing that he has barely mentioned since. He finished an uninspired 19th at Jack Nicklaus' tournament in Columbus. He played stunningly bad and unfocused golf in finishing 46th as defending champ of the AT&T National.

\nYes, people will point out that he finished fourth at both the Masters and the U.S. Open, and he did — nobody suggests that Tiger Woods will turn into a 12-handicapper. But even those fourth-place finishes said something was wrong ... he was never really a Sunday threat to win either tournament, even though Augusta National and Pebble Beach are two of his favorite golf courses, places he was meant to dominate. Even two or three years ago, people pointed to 2010 as the year for a potential Tiger Woods grand slam because of those golf courses. Finishing fourth at Augusta (where he has won four times and set the course record) and Pebble Beach (where he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots) is hardly a sign that Tiger Woods is playing well enough.

\nAnyway, despite all this, he was STILL the prohibitive favorite to win the British Open. He was the betting favorite. He was the analysts' favorite. Even the people who thought that Tiger Woods was not going to win figured that he would contend (that was my feeling), and even those who thought he would not contend (if you could find any of them) didn't seem too sure of themselves. When I ran a poll a couple of weeks ago asking readers if Tiger Woods would break Nicklaus' record for most majors (he still has to win FIVE MORE majors, which is more than Phil Mickelson has won in his career), barely 3 percent checked "Definitely not." And I suspect that number would be even lower if people had to stake their reputations on it.

\nNo, I don't think there is almost anyone out there who is writing off Tiger Woods. And frankly ... there's good reason to write him off. This may sound cruel but I actually mean it as the opposite of cruel: More people SHOULD be writing off Tiger Woods.

\nFirst, he will turn 35 at the end of the year. There has been talk that this means Woods will still be in his golfing prime for the next few years, but history tells a different story. Since 1970, the average age of major championship winners is 32, and things tumble off for golfers after age 35. Fewer than a quarter of the major championship winners have been 36 or older. The only players since 1970 to win multiple majors after turning 36 are: Jack Nicklaus (4), Gary Player (4), Ray Floyd (2), Nick Price (2), Vijay Singh (2), Mark O'Meara (2), Angel Cabrera (2), Padraig Harrington (2).

\nMore to the point, Woods has been dominant for a dozen years — which is a long time to dominate in golf. The greatest golfers have had a fairly short window of time when they dominate, and when that window closes, they stop winning major championships.

\n• Ben Hogan won all his majors from 1946 through 1953 and though he contended for years (finishing second four times in the next three years), he never won another one.

\n• Arnold Palmer won all his majors from 1958 through 1964.

\n• Tom Watson (more on him in a minute) won all his majors from 1975 through 1983.

\n• Sam Snead won all his majors from 1946 through 1954.

\n• Nick Faldo won all his majors from 1987 through 1996.

\n• Bobby Jones won all his majors from 1923 through 1930.

\nAnd so on. There are two notable exceptions — they are the two best old golfers of the last 50 years. Gary Player spread out his major championship victories over two decades — 1959-78. His endurance is a marvel, what makes him one of the greatest who ever lived. The other, of course, is Nicklaus, who won his first major in 1962 and his last at Augusta in 1986 when he was 46 years old. Nicklaus' ability to overcome disappointment — from 1976 through '83 he finished second a staggering SEVEN times — and continue to maintain his will and enthusiasm for winning is part of what makes him one of the great sportsmen of the 20th Century.

\nIs Tiger like Nicklaus or Player? Maybe. But we don't know. And I don't know why we would just ASSUME that he is like Nicklaus or Player. Tom Watson seems a better comparison to me. Before Woods, the last guy to utterly dominate the PGA Tour was Watson. He was PGA Tour Player of the Year six out of eight years from 1977 through '84. He won seven majors and a total of 35 events in those years — his high might not be quite as high as Woods's, but it's plenty high. Watson was a wonder to behold. Nobody on earth hit the ball with the same authority (most people would rank Watson as one of the three best wind players in the history of golf) and nobody on earth had the same imagination and touch around the greens. He had (and still has) a great sense of golf history and his place in it. He was only 33 years old when he won his last major championship. After 1984, he barely won at all.

\nSo what happened? Well, there are the familiar golf reasons. His putting went south — he stopped making the five- and six-footers that win and lose championships. His desire faded. Younger golfers emerged. Numerous other things. I've talked with Tom at some length about these things.

\nBut there's something else that Tom talks about, and that something else is that maybe it just stopped being his time. The difference between good and great is a whisper — Watson still had obvious greatness in him. He will often say that he hit the ball better as an old man than he ever did as a young man. He finished second at two majors in 1984, finished in the Top 10 at the Masters nine out of 10 years from 1982 through '91. Heck, as you know, he was a putt away from winning the British Open last year. But he did not win any of those, and Tom's overpowering line is: "I had my time." How long can anyone expect to be the best in the whole world? Joe Louis faded. Willie Mays faded. Steffi Graf faded. Michael Jordan faded. Roger Federer fades. Time always wins.

\nTiger Woods is showing obvious signs of age. His putting, for the first time in his career, is shaky — he used two different putters at this British Open and missed a lot of putts. He missed a lot of putts at the U.S. Open, too. Woods's greatness unfolds in many forms, but in the end, perhaps, his most fundamental genius has been his steely nerve over the 10-foot putts that he HAD to make. If he stops making those putts more than the mere mortals around him, well, he becomes one of those mere mortals. That's just how it works.

\nIt's more than just putting, of course. There have been his often-discussed swing issues. He has had numerous and major injuries. And, sure, he has also been dragged through a very public media flogging. All of it figures to take its toll.

\nAlso, time goes on, and numerous younger and uniquely talented golfers emerge on the scene — golfers raised on Tiger Woods. We have no idea if this British Open winner — 27-year-old Louis Oosthuizen — will become a great golfer or if this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but we do know that when asked to name his golfing hero, the man from South Africa who learned the game in the spirit of Ernie Els said: "Tiger Woods."

\nThe fact that so many people — a virtual consensus of people, really — believe that Tiger Woods will come through all of this, return to himself, win a whole bunch more majors, still be the golfer he was in 2000 or 2002 or 2007 shows the huge impact that he has made on the sports world and our imaginations. There's no realistic reason to believe it — we simply cannot imagine an aging Tiger Woods. There was no real reason to think that he had any chance to win this British Open. But people did expect it, and that's why his 23rd-place finish feels like a disappointment. You can bet that when the PGA Championship comes around, he will be a favorite again.

\nThat's why I say more people SHOULD write off Tiger Woods ... because if he actually comes back, wins five or eight or 10 more major championships, plays at anywhere near the level he was playing at in the past, it really would be something like a sports miracle.

\nI watched many, many hours of the British Open coverage this week — so many hours that I expect to get invited to the wedding of that guy in the Scottrade commercials — and it seems to me that the hero of the weekend was Curtis Strange. That's an odd thing for me to say because Curtis was always absurdly grumpy when I had to deal with him as a golfer. Still ... when Tiger Woods shot an opening-round 67 in preposterously easy conditions (Woods himself said it was like playing in a dome), the announcers were falling over each other to be the loudest to say "Tiger Woods is back!" It was ridiculous — basically EVERYBODY shot 67 with the wind down on Thursday. But you know that in today's sports media frenzy we fall into the bad habit of picking the story line first and then build our reporting on that line ... we all do it. The story line was that this Open Championship could be the return of Tiger Woods, and an opening-round 67 fed the beast.

\nOnly, there was Curtis Strange. And he said (not exact words): "I know everybody was impressed, but you know what? I didn't think Tiger was all that good. I thought he hit some errant shots and his putting was only OK." It turned out to be prophetic — Woods shot two over par the rest of the way. But even if Strange's words had not proven so right, it was STILL a refreshing thing to hear. Tiger Woods is not a machine. Tiger Woods is not a story. Tiger Woods is not a movie, and he's not a fairy tale. Tiger Woods is not even the young man who played golf at a higher level than any man in the history of the sport. No. Tiger Woods is a balding, 34-year-old man fighting his swing, his putter, his confidence, his past and his history. So many of us expect him to return to his previous dominance.

\nBut I wonder if that really says more about us than it does him.

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