Tiger Woods is grinding, and he deserves some room to work

Wednesday May 30th, 2012
Tiger Woods got back into contention on Friday with a 68.
Fred Vuich/SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The vitriol some of you direct at Tiger Woods is just ... repulsive. Were you rooting for him to miss the cut Friday at the Players? I know you’re out there. You write in all the time. Were you hoping he’d miss consecutive cuts for the first time in his professional career? Well, he didn’t.

On Thursday he shot 74, two over par on this golf course that has all the charm of the Walmart in Branson, Mo. (Except for professional contrarian Colin Montgomerie, you will seldom hear any player profess genuine love for the Stadium Course.) Woods knew he’d have to shoot 70 or better to make it to Saturday’s round. Through seven holes he was even for the day. Do you think he felt pressure about the possibility of missing the cut? He would never admit that, but he doesn’t admit to much. We all know that, now. Misdirection is a high art for him. Hank Haney, in his book, spells out some of the lies Woods has told.

So, Tiger lies. Who among us does not?

But his scorecard is pathologically honest, and there in black-and-white are his Friday birdies on eight, nine, 10 and 11. That got him to two under par for the tournament, and that’s where he finished after shooting 68 to make the cut by two. Or, as Woods would say, he’s six off the lead.

The Friday round had shades of vintage Tiger. Not the fact that he made four straight birdies; he’s done that before. (He once played five consecutive holes in six under par.) No, what made his Friday round vintage Tiger was the grinding. That’s how Tiger Woods became Tiger Woods. By grinding it out. By being a grunt with outrageous skills.

Since his return from the hydrant -- Tiger’s people don’t get this, but for the rest of Woods’s life there will always be two major chapters, one before and one after Thanksgiving 2009 -- the thing that’s been missing most from Tiger is his downright nerdy ability to grind it out. He once said that of all his records, he’s most proud of making 142 consecutive cuts, from 1998 to 2005. I don’t take that literally. How can you possibly compare the cut-streak record to winning a U.S. Open by 15 shots, winning 14 majors by age 33 or winning 72 Tour events by age 36? You can’t. But his point, I think, is that the cut-streak is all about doing the work, and for years, for decades, Woods was all about the work.

You can save your e-mails about the cut-streak record. Everybody knows it’s kind of funky, as it includes events where there was no cut, and that Ben Hogan, if you really get into it, should probably be credited with 177 straight in-the-money events, according to research done by the golf statistician Sal Johnson. But the Tour says that the Tour “cut” record, the record for consecutive tournaments in the money, belongs to Woods, with 142. Just as impressive is that in 281 tournaments played, Woods has missed only eight cuts, the last of which was last week at Quail Hollow.

People -- some people, anyway -- went crazy after that MC, as if Tiger had lost his swing, and his mind. Last week at the Wells Fargo, Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 golfer in the world, got into a playoff by shooting 14 under par. This week, he was four over through two rounds and was flying to Rome on Friday night. Was anybody sounding the alarm? Of course not. It’s golf. It can almost never be played at the highest level tournament after tournament after tournament. Byron Nelson did. Hogan did. Nicklaus did. Tiger did, for a long time. And that’s about it, really.

Everything Tiger does is watched with hyper-intensity. I’m as guilty of that as anybody. The other day I was looking at a random picture of Woods at Augusta National, near the entrance to the clubhouse. He stopped to say hi to somebody. The camera caught the moment. Every single person in the picture is staring at Tiger Woods, even the people eating lunch on the second-floor veranda. That’s one moment of his life. Multiply that by a million. It can’t be easy. No, it’s not a hard life like working three jobs to keep your family afloat. Nobody’s comparing it to that. But it simply cannot be easy.

I read the The Big Miss by Hank Haney without skimming a single sentence, I mean, actual insights into Tiger Woods? C’mon! I hung on every word, even those that left me cringing. Most particularly, Haney’s tea-leaf reading about the nature of Tiger’s marriage to Elin. Every writer must decide what’s in-bounds and what’s out, but it seems to me that if you were invited into Woods’s life as his golf instructor, the subject of his marriage should be off-limits.

Haney’s Tiger is not warm or generous or honest. None of that was surprising. But that he wasn’t really knowledgeable about his own swing? I never guessed that. Hunter Mahan -- who played Thursday and Friday with Woods, and who, like Woods, is coached by Sean Foley -- said the other day that he was amazed to learn how little Woods knew about the swing when they played together at the 2010 Players.

“That was some of the worst ball-striking I’ve ever seen from any pro, ever,” Mahan said. “His knowledge of the game was so bad, which was shocking to me.”

Mahan went on to praise Woods for how well he’s hitting it now, and for being fourth in the total driving statistic. A nuanced analysis of Tiger Woods? Stop the Internet!

When Woods kicked his 9-iron at the Masters on 16 in the second round after a horrid tee shot, Nick Faldo, broadcasting on CBS, said, “He has lost his game, and his mind.” As a line, it was excellent. But as an insight, it offered nothing. In a year when the theme has been that no lead is safe, Woods won Bay Hill by five. Yes, Bay Hill is a home game for him and blah, blah, blah, but he won by five! Yes, at times Woods has looked lost on the course, before Bay Hill and after it, too. But he has not “lost his game.” He’s trying to recover his game. It is unlikely that he will ever return anywhere close to where he once was, in terms of dominance.

But the point is that he’s trying to get better. (A secondary point is that he is showing signs of evolution. Spending time with Joe LaCava, his new caddie, and Sean Foley, his current teacher, can only be a positive for him.) Maybe you think it makes no sense that he has had four major swing changes over the course of his career. Yes, Snead never really changed his swing, and neither did Nicklaus. But in golf you have to find your own way, and Tiger’s thing is reinvention, and he’s the guy with 14 majors and 72 Tour wins, the most recent of which was last month.

As for the kicked 9-iron. Of course it’s poor etiquette, but you show me a golfer who doesn’t have a temper, and I’ll show you a picture of Steve Stricker. Every other Tour player (pretty much) will kick something sooner or later.

Bobby Jones once wrote, "Golf is a game that creates emotions that sometimes cannot be endured with the club still in your hands.”

When Nicklaus won the 1970 British Open at the Old Course, he heaved his putter in the air and nearly impaled Doug Sanders. I love Nicklaus. But was that one of the great moments of golf etiquette? No. It was an illustration of Jones’s prescient brilliance.

When Woods came in from his second-round 68, he was asked, “You looked like a guy who didn’t want to miss consecutive cuts. Can you feel that, that little bit of pressure?”

Of course Woods felt pressure. When has there not been pressure on Tiger Woods? But he wasn’t going to go there. Oh, no.

“I was trying to shoot my number today,” he said. “Sixty-six was my number today.”

Viewed that way, he shot two over. Maybe that’s why he went straight to the range, with his teacher and his caddie, trying to get better. Let’s give the guy some breathing room. He’s trying to get better.

An earlier version of this article said that McIlroy flew to Belfast on Friday night. It was Rome, as he tweeted here.

 

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