Even Pacino has had his clunkers, so we’re not going to start dismissing Tiger’s acting because of this one performance, and you shouldn’t either. Attention must be paid to the man’s body of work in toto, the old Nike and Buick spots, the interviews with Ed Bradley of CBS (prehydrant) and Tom Rinaldi of ESPN (post). We all know that Tiger Woods is world class, has been since he Hello Worlded us at his pro debut. Still, it must be said: This last gig was a head-scratcher.
O.K., here goes: At Kiawah, Woods dabbled in some new material, and it was kind of weird, experimental and New Agey. We’re not knocking it. We want to encourage his artistic growth. But that doesn’t mean we’re buying the postmortem act he trotted out at the PGA Championship.
Maybe you saw it. The main event, first major held in South Carolina, was all over except the shouting. (Rory’s final birdie on 18 was coming up.) TW was wearing his Sunday costume. (The black pants, the red shirt.) He was standing on a small stage with the cameras rolling, and he was discussing the seven holes he had played on Saturday, the seven holes that turned his excellent comeback year (three big wins in big events on big courses) into a forgettable one (no majors). He had played the Saturday Seven in 32 shots, three over par, the day ending when the dark, low storm clouds moved in and the horn blew. A day and change later he stood in the sweet, junglelike Low-Country air and delivered this amazing four-word line: “I was too relaxed.”
Once more, in full and with feeling: “I was too relaxed and tried to enjoy it. And that’s not how I play. I play intense, full systems go. That cost me.”
Whoa right there.
If you were watching him, on TV or in person, you saw something else. On 5, the first of Kiawah’s nasty par-3s, you saw Tiger at his most intense. The wind was blowing off the Atlantic and across the green, left-to-right. The pin was far left, leaving all sorts of bail-out room right, which Tiger’s playing partner, Vijay Singh, availed himself of with his languid, wind-drifted five-iron. It looked as if Woods was trying to hit a low, holding draw shot. Very classy and what you might expect from the golfer who remains—and here, as in other matters, we part with officialdom—the best player in the world. But this swing Woods made on 5, it was downright fierce. Relaxed it was not. It turned into a hard hook that finished short of the hole and way left of the green. He did well to make bogey.
You can read too much into any one thing in life, including this swing, but it looked as if Woods was trying to do too much with that one shot. It looked as if he was trying to win his 15th major on the 41st hole of a 72-hole tournament. The swing, and the thinking behind the swing, was full-systems-go in extreme.
(Related Photos: Classic Tiger Woods photos)
You might wonder if the tee shot on 5 was a response to the very odd bogey he made on the par-4 4th, where he hit fans with his tee shot and his approach, chunked a chip and made one from 40 inches for a 5. (That kind of thing does not relax a man.)
Or was the swing on 5 a response to the lackluster weekend golf he played at the U.S. Open at Olympic in June and the British Open at Royal Lytham in July? Had he played on those two weekends as he played his weekend golf at Bay Hill and Memorial and Congressional, Tiger would have been looking for major No. 17 at Kiawah.
Some odd thing was going on as he played on Saturday. He did seem to be approaching the round in an uncharacteristic way. He looked almost detached. Now and again he stared out at the churning ocean. He stayed last week on his yacht, Privacy, and he clearly did come to shore on Saturday with some sort of different approach. But not relaxed.
The guy must get sick of hearing the word major. Major, major, major. But it’s a conversation of his own making. He set the bar higher than anyone ever has. Big Jack had 18 majors, and Tiger was going to first match and then pass. He has been stuck at 14 for four years and two months.
It will only get harder and more intense. He used to win majors by simply playing golf. His golf was so much better than everyone else’s that he didn’t have to do anything really special to win majors. Now his golf is not as good and others are better and he’s searching for a new approach. In the meantime the poor bastard must explain his longest 0-fer again and again.
He is a master at changing the story. The best pols have nothing on him. He has explained this barren period by way of his injuries, his swing changes, his lack of “reps,” his hit-and-miss schedule. And, most recently and most oddly, a faulty game plan, one that had him playing too relaxed. In the company of noted fellow hard-ass Vijay Singh, that seemed particularly unlikely.
On Sunday, Woods played a solid round of golf, but one of his playing partners, Peter Hanson of Denmark, noticed that “his shoulders kind of sagged when he missed that birdie putt on 12,” a miss from four feet that really meant his wait for next year had begun.
In victory Rory McIlroy said he noticed that Tiger’s name was not on the leader board as he made his way around Kiawah in 66 shots. McIlroy answered a handful of questions that dealt with Tiger and the pace at which young Tiger won majors, how Tiger handled his success. Woods answered them too. He said, “We’ve always known that Rory has all the talent in the world.” Woods knows that talent enough is not enough. That’s why he’s at 14. That’s why, surely, No. 15 will come, sooner or later.
And on the chance that he never does get to 15, Woods will still be a legend in the game, just as Nicklaus is. People are saying now that Tiger is simply another very good player. Tiger will never be simply another very good player, even when he’s ranked 50th in the world. But the majors are in his head now in a way they’ve never been before. And there’s likely nobody in the world who can help him figure out how to win another one except himself, or maybe Big Jack.
Somebody asked Woods on Sunday night where his Saturday mental approach came from. “I don’t know,” he said. “It was a bad move on my part.”
His playing partner had a different feeling about Woods’s golf on Saturday. Singh didn’t see a player who was too relaxed, who was too consumed with, as Tiger said, trying “to enjoy the process of it.” No, Singh saw it a different way. He said, “Maybe he was trying too hard.