Tiger's aura still haunts players on the PGA Tour
Halfway through this year's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, Billy Horschel, after rounds of 66-69, and Casey Wittenberg (69-67) were in second and third place, respectively. Because of fog delays, the duo was scheduled to play the final two rounds with 36-hole leader Tiger Woods. Neither player sounded fazed, telling the media they were eager for the challenge and grateful for the opportunity.
Watching from the Golf Channel studios, I knew the "opportunity" would cost them dearly.
I've listened to critics and even players say that Woods is not as intimidating as he once was, that his aura is gone. Please. No, he's not the player he was, but he's as imposing as ever.
The numbers tell us so. From 2000 to 2002, when Tiger was his most dominant, his playing partners shot, on average, 71.77, or about a third of a stroke higher than the PGA Tour scoring average over that same period.
His partners' average score in the Post-Hydrant Era from 2010 to 2012? 71.71.
Yes, that's a few ticks better than their early-2000s tally, but given that the Tour scoring average over that same period improved to 71.08, you could make the case that Tiger's partners today are in fact performing worse than they did during his prime.
This disparity is amazing, especially when you consider that Tiger is always paired with the best players on Thursday and Friday. Intimidation isn't the only factor at work, of course — the swarms of fans and media that trail Woods surely cost his companions the odd stroke — but I'm convinced that the primary cause of his partners' sub-par play is their sense of inferiority.
Before Tiger, golf's leading intimidators were Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. Hogan's supposed "secret" and steely silence created a mystique. Nicklaus's stare and mere presence (in person or atop a leaderboard) unnerved players.
Nick Faldo also intimidated, to a lesser extent than Hogan, perhaps, but in much the same manner. Think of the mistakes that players have made when paired with Faldo, including Scott Hoch's kick-in miss during a playoff at the 1989 Masters and Greg Norman's infamous collapse at the '96 Masters.
Faldo himself wasn't beyond intimidation. As the defending champion at the 1997 Masters, he shot an opening-round 75 playing alongside Woods. Nick never won again on either tour after that week, which reminds me of the story of the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, who, when he realized he could never equal the talent of his protégé, Leonardo da Vinci, vowed never to paint again. I'm not suggesting Nick vowed never to win again, but it is curious that he didn't after playing with Tiger.
Or take Davis Love III, who shot 72 to Tiger's 65 in their first Tour round together, in 1997. Love would need another 14 years and 18 stroke-play rounds with Tiger before he finally broke 70 in Woods's company. If a 20-time Tour winner with a major title struggles to find his game with Tiger, what chance do guys like Casey Wittenberg and Billy Horschel have?
As it turned out, not much.
In a Monday finish at Torrey Pines, Woods won the title by four and a cool $1,098,000. Casey? He closed 72-74 to tie for 15th, good for $94,550, while Billy staggered home 76-75 to settle for a T39 and $25,010.
I knew the opportunity would cost them, and, boy, did it ever.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.