When Tiger Woods wasn't fist-pumping his way through the field at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, he was taking an unplayable lie in the cacti; or being driven back to the tee to reload after pumping his first drive O.B.; or bloodying the head of a hapless old marshal with a wayward tee ball.
The Great One's game has always been eye-popping, but now it's peculiar, too. Nicklaus never won like this. Is Woods so much better than everyone else that being a spray hitter simply doesn't matter? Most of the time, it seems the answer is yes. He found less than half the fairways at the Buick Invitational in January and won by eight.
"Somebody said to me, 'Geez, how would Ben Hogan have felt if he drove it that way?'" said Bob Rosburg, the winner of the 1959 PGA and former ABC announcer. "I said he'd have probably quit the game."
Woods's success despite his erratic play off the tee brings up several questions. Is something wrong with modern course designs? Is he somehow tarnishing and burnishing his legend at the same time? First and foremost, though, it begs the question of whether he can cop his fifth consecutive PGA Tour win at this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. History says it will be tough.
When Woods was coached by Butch Harmon, and consistently hitting 65-70% of the fairways, he owned Bay Hill, hoisting the trophy four straight times from 2000 to 2003. But in March of 2004, he began tweaking his swing with his new coach, Hank Haney, who espoused a flatter action that created an unintended byproduct — impaired driving. That year he went under the 60% mark, to 56.1% of fairways hit, 182nd out of 196 players on tour. Not surprisingly, he didn't win Bay Hill in 2004, and he hasn't since. The low point came on Sunday last year, when Woods chipped out of the rough on 18 only to hit his third in the water on the way to a triple-bogey 7. He signed for a 76 (and a tie for 22nd place) and left the course without comment.
"Even a player as strong as Tiger Woods, unless he catches a good lie in the rough, he's going to have trouble hitting the green from more than 100 yards," says Roy Saunders, vice president of the Bay Hill Club. "We grow our roughs up and top them at four inches, thick and deep. Our goal is to bring the course as close to major championship conditions as possible."
Palmer's tournament is the exception to the rule, one of the only places on Tour where inaccuracy off the tee is still a very serious handicap. (Jack Nicklaus's Memorial is another, but more on that later.)
The stats are telling: Through the first two months of 2008, Woods was two-for-two on the PGA Tour, where he was hitting 48% of the fairways (194th out of 198 players), and one-for-one on the European tour after hitting 55% in Dubai.
Hold on, you say. That's too small a sample size. And it is. But those three weeks are the continuation of a long trend.
Woods hit 59.83% of fairways 2007 (152nd on Tour), when he won seven times, including the PGA; 60.71% in 2006 (139th on Tour), when he won eight times, including two majors; and 54.6% in 2005 (tied for 188th), when he won six times, including two majors.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Woods said when asked about his driving after a particularly erratic opening round at this year's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, where he had nevertheless shot 67. "I was asking Stevie the same thing: Do you see anything? I really couldn't tell you. I had a low-left ball or a spinny, high-right. It's kind of hard to aim when you've got both of those things going."
But not hard to win, apparently — not if you're Tiger.