GAINESVILLE, Va. – The golfing curiosity that is Tiger Woods will be on display here again this week at the Quicken Loans National.
The view of Tiger is what has changed most of all. Players watch him hit balls on the range to see just how good—or not good—he’s hitting it. Fans follow him with more of a NASCAR mindset, they want to see something spectacular like the old days, but they also know they could see a fiery crash at any time, too.
The old Tiger was so good that he would’ve been boring if he didn’t play so many shots that nobody else could hit. Last week the CBS crew even brought up his incredible 6-iron shot from a fairway bunker over the lake to a par-5 green at the 18th hole at Glen Abbey during the 2000 Canadian Open.
Players hit the ball farther than ever these days, but that 6-iron by Tiger remains incredible.
Not to make excuses for Tiger Woods, because he doesn’t need any and, you know, 14 majors means he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, but he did have back surgery last year, he did make a major swing change (and his history says he’s a notoriously slow learner) and, ahem, he’s not getting any younger.
“I’m caught between generations,” Woods admitted here Tuesday at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, the original site of the Presidents Cup matches. “This generation of young guys grew up watching me win tournaments. The guys I used to play against and practice with, they’re all on the senior tour now. I know every one of them, I played against every one of them. This is my 20th year out here. Arnie and Gary played 51 Masters—I’m not even that old yet.”
In those 20 years, this is Tiger’s nadir as a player. In eight tournaments, he scored in the 60s only five times. Two of those were at the Masters, which is more impressive as we distance ourselves from April and Tiger continues to struggle with his game. He had issues with his short game in Phoenix, he tweaked his back at Torrey Pines and except for that 17th-place finish at the Masters, he hasn’t placed in the top 30. He missed three cuts this season, including two in a row at the U.S. and British Open. The old Tiger went a couple of years between missed cuts and rarely at a major. This new Tiger is more interesting in the sense that we don’t know what to expect. If he had a 54-hole lead, we knew what was going to happen next. Now, you probably wouldn’t bet your house on him making the cut this week.
Tiger will tee off Thursday at 12:55 in the afternoon, by the way, and play with Bill Haas and Nick Watney.
He isn’t just caught between generations. He’s caught between swings—multiple swing thoughts—and he’s caught between want to and have to.
Tiger wants to get his game back. But he admitted that during his last break, he didn’t touch his clubs. He went snorkeling and diving with his two kids, Sam and Charley, and got back near a television in time to watch only the four-hole playoff at the British Open.
Some close Tiger observers think the reason Tiger practices so hard on his game when he’s on site at a tournament is because he isn’t spending much time practicing and working on his game when he’s home. You can say he doesn’t seem as driven but really, who is just as driven on the verge of turning 40 as they were at 18? Especially after multiple knee surgeries, multiple swing coaches, a back surgery, fatherhood and a done-it-all-career with 14 major championships?
Fellow Tour player Jimmy Walker was impressed because he was on the range here Monday with Rickie Fowler, and so was Woods.
“Tiger was right next to us hitting balls,” Walker said. “He’s working on it, he wants to get his game back. I played with him at the Masters and I could tell he really wanted to do well and make those putts.”
There’s a difference between want-to and have-to and maybe that’s the fine line between winning and just making cuts.
Woods doesn’t lack for confidence. You wouldn’t be much of a professional athlete without a confident attitude. Woods shouldn’t be criticized for that and his ongoing “I’m really close” and “It’s coming together” mantras. He believes it either because it’s true or because he has to.
He also doesn’t sugar-coat just how poor this season has been for him.
“I didn’t think it would take this long because I thought I would have my short game earlier, which I didn’t,” Woods said. “You can cover up a lot of different things when you’re chipping and putting well. Throughout the years when I’ve changed coaches and techniques, my short game was pretty good. It wasn’t this year and so the process of scoring has taken a lot longer. I’m sticking with it and just trying to make progress each and every day.”
Tiger reiterated that it’s a fine line between winning and missing cuts and his lack of scoring prowess, once maybe the best golf has ever seen, has cost him. The 74s he used to turn into 70s with his short game, he said, are all 74s or higher this year. “That’s the unfortunate thing about scoring,” he said. “You need to have those opportunities and I’ve had chances to make those runs and just haven’t done it.”
Physically, Tiger says, there is nothing wrong with him and nothing hindering his swing. He hasn’t been forthcoming about injuries in the past so you can only take his word for it.
Tiger is still in the patient mode. Not that he has a choice. Not until he starts playing better. During Tuesday morning’s practice round, he was still hitting some squirrelly shots when he swung all out. His three-quarter swing? Those shots look pretty good. So maybe he’s right, maybe he is creeping closer.
Statistics can lie but Tiger’s are mixed. He hasn’t played enough rounds to qualify to be ranked in the PGA Tour’s official statistics but check this out. Woods would rank sixth in proximity to the hole at 32 feet 3 inches—that’s possibly the most important stat out there. Not bad.
His putting is middle of the pack—he’d rank 97th in strokes gained putting. His short game is abominable. He would stand 195th, next to last, in sand saves at a meager 35.1 percent and he would be dead last by five lengths in scrambling—he’s gotten it up and down only 43.14 percent of the time. Charlie Beljian, currently ranks last at 48.10.
The only thing nearly as bad as Tiger’s short game is his driving. He’s got the dreaded two-way miss going, meaning he can’t take either side of the course out of play off the tee. He doesn’t know where the tee ball is going. He would rank 171st in tendency to miss fairways left and 180th in tendency to miss fairways right. One of those would be bad news. Missing both ways that often is dead solid unplayable. The only good news is, he’s got nowhere to go but up.
He looked weary Tuesday—maybe a practice round on a steamy, sultry morning did that to him. Or maybe it was the battle with his uncertain game.
“Is it frustrating? Yeah, isn’t frustrating not to win golf tournaments,” he said. “I’m not really in contention very often. But I know how close it feels. I know that I just need a couple of shots here and there to turn the tide. Every time I’ve had those shots, I haven’t done it. I’ve got to clean up my rounds and convert those opportunities and hopefully, I can do it this week.”
Another week, another Tiger showing, another curious audience. What will Tiger, the official tournament host here, do next? All we can do is wait and watch.