SAN FRANCISCO -- There was a nice roar when Tiger Woods rolled in a birdie putt here at the eighth hole Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t an honest-to-goodness Tiger roar, though. Not like the deafening ones we used to hear when he was pulling off impossible shots to win majors, like the last time he won a U.S. Open, four years ago at Torrey Pines.
This roar was almost a roar of surprise, mixed with delight. Nice shot, Tiger, the fans were thinking, not that it matters now.
It was, of course, exactly what Woods himself must’ve been thinking as he gave a sarcastic wave, picked his ball out of the cup, offered a wry smile and touched the brim of his cap. He seemed to be saying, Where were these birdie putts when I needed them yesterday? It was Tiger’s first birdie since the ninth hole in the third round.
The United States Open champion is always the No. 1 story of the week. Story 1-A at Olympic Club, however, was Tiger. Fresh off an impressive, near flawless win at the Memorial, Woods rolled onto this course and played two impressive rounds to share the lead going into the weekend. There was no reason to think that he wouldn’t win another Open, his 15th major championship.
On Saturday, he didn’t seem to have a shred of confidence. He blew a tap-in par putt at the eighth hole. He stubbed a chip at the 18th when he desperately needed to chip in for birdie. That led to a costly, your-Open-is-now-over bogey. On Sunday, he struggled from the start, making bogey on the first two holes, a double on the third, and two more bogeys at the fifth and sixth. He was three under the rest of the day, but it was too late. He finished at seven over for the tournament, well off the pace.
Golf observers everywhere have the same question: What the heck happened to Tiger on the weekend? The man who had won eight of nine times when he led or had a share of the lead in a major championship after 36 holes came out in Saturday’s third round and not only failed, he failed embarrassingly. On Sunday, he needed a heroic showing to get back in it, and he never even came close.
Give Woods credit, he stopped off to say a few words to TV and the media, but only a few words. He had to have been livid. So, what’s going on with Tiger? He’s not going to tell us, even if he knows. So here are some theories:
It’s a process. This has been Tiger’s favorite line the last two years as he’s reconstructed his swing with Sean Foley. Maybe he’s right, maybe it really is a process… that takes the modern game’s best player two full years… nahhhh.
It was a stunt double. That wasn’t Woods on Saturday shooting that ugly 75, that was Kevin Na playing a bad joke. You could tell because he backed off a couple of shots, not because of crowd noise or cameras, but because he was unsure of his swing and the shot he wanted to play. It resembled start-again, stop-again Na from the Players Championship.
He’s washed up. Are you serious? He’s won twice this year, as much as any other player, and in his four rounds at Memorial his ballstriking was close to flawless. If he’d made many putts outside of 10 feet, he would’ve won by 10. He even wielded his formerly misbehaving driver with authority. And he kept it going for his first two rounds at the Olympic Club, which looked like something out of a How To Win The Open golf clinic. That only made Saturday’s cheese-melt that much more stunning.
Tiger is human. Well, that’s all too true. But he’s always been human, it just didn’t seem that way when he was winning majors at will.
Ninety percent of this game is half-mental. This has been a recurring theme among assorted TV commentators. There may be something to it. Woods really did appear to devolve into an indecisive, confidence-lacking player on Saturday, and he wasn’t able to correct or fix whatever he was doing wrong. A revealing part of the Hank Haney book, The Big Miss, said that Woods has never really owned or fully understood his swing, as the public and media believed. Instead, he was fairly dependent on his coaches for daily fixes. This one is getting more and more believable.
It’s a major problem. This is an off-shoot of the it’s-all-in-his-head theory, but this one says that Tiger just can’t handle the pressure in major championships on the weekend. That seems unlikely, given his 14 previous major titles. But those were won by a completely different golfer, who was physically and mentally different from the Tiger we’re seeing now. He won at Bay Hill in March, then went to the Masters and laid an egg. He won at the Memorial, and then came to the Open and played great for two rounds, then laid a gigantic egg. Is that progress? I bet Tiger doesn’t think so.
The Sean Foley method. This theory says that when players using Foley’s swing are on, they’re really on, but when their swing goes awry, it goes really awry. That seems less likely, but it does feed back into the theory about Tiger not knowing his swing well enough.
It’s the Olympic Club, stupid. Hey, it’s a very difficult golf course. It’s a great Open venue because it’s difficult, it looks great on TV, and the San Francisco scenery and fans give it a unique and exciting atmosphere. But the course has too much tilt and is too funky to be great, which is why someone other than the greats in the game usually wins here. It’s a flawed course where good shots too often bound out of the fairway. When Tiger started missing fairways on Saturday, it was a death warrant in this firm setup.
In between clubs. Tiger told NBC’s Jimmy Roberts that it was one of those awkward days when he found himself frequently in between clubs on his shots -- a 7-iron was too much, an 8-iron was not enough. This seems laughable coming from the best shotmaker of his generation. It may be true that he wasn’t confident in the clubs he ultimately selected, however.
More reps. There were a lot of positives from this week, Woods told NBC, a lot of positives. “I just gotta play,” Woods said, thereby brushing aside all other inquiries. Or, as his favorite saying goes, maybe he just needs more reps. No, there’s something else going on here, without question.
It’s the short game, stupid. While Tiger is the best at trick shots around the greens, all sorts of super-floppers and challenging pitches, he’s not very good at straightforward chipping, and he continues to prove it this year. He botched Saturday’s round, but he still would’ve been in striking distance if he could’ve birdied the 18th. He stubbed his chip, however, moving his ball only about a foot. Why does it seem like he might have holed that shot if he’d had to flip it straight up over a small lighthouse?
What Phil had. Maybe Tiger is catching the virus Phil Mickelson used to have, the one that made short putts look like cobras? The Old Tiger was the king of 10 feet and in, not to mention the king of every putt that mattered. The New Tiger is not. At least, not all the time. We haven’t often seen him putting with a lot of confidence since his return from the scandal. Maybe this is a mental part of the game that he’ll never fully get back, or maybe he’s reached that age (36) at which those eight-footers quit automatically going in.
The investment. Some experts think Tiger just can’t recapture his drive, his all-encompassing obsession with the game. Maybe that comes with getting older, with having kids, or maybe he’s just tired of the relentless, never-ending spotlight.
It’s the body. Due to assorted injuries -- his knee reconstruction, his recurring Achilles aches, and other tweaks he’ll never tell us about -- Tiger isn’t able to pound the number of practice balls he used to. That’s tough for a self-professed range rat. If he can’t practice as much as he did when he was younger, it could be affecting his consistency.
The deal. This theory says that Tiger sold his soul to the devil in exchange for golfing greatness and, uh-oh, time’s up.
Believe what you want. The one thing we can probably all agree on is that Tiger’s performance on the weekend in this U.S. Open was nothing short of unbelievable.