DUBLIN, Ohio—It would be easy to write Tiger Woods’ golfing epitaph today.
He just shot 85 in the Memorial Tournament’s third round. It was pretty close to bogey golf. He doubled the eighth, doubled the ninth and made a quadruple-bogey 8 at the 18th.
Eighty-five. There were a few snickers when he turned Saturday morning in 42. One pressroom guy noted that he’d just shot “a Jackie Robinson,” but at least it was better than his round in Phoenix earlier this year when he posted “a Hank Aaron” (44). By the end of the round, there were hushed tones in the pressroom that gave it the temporary feel of a funeral.
Every golfer knows there is nothing funny about playing bad, especially playing horrifically bad.
Woods shot three under par on the front nine in each of the first two rounds but this time, he had a weak poker hand on the front—a pair of 5s and a pair of 6s.
Zac Blair, 24, a former Brigham Young University All-American who has played his way onto the PGA Tour, was paired with Woods on Saturday and had a front-row seat to this three-car accident. Blair was very complimentary about how Woods handled himself.
“It was still obviously great to play with him. It would have been nice to see him play better but he’s working through some things. He was great the whole round. He had a tough day but he was super nice, super friendly, always willing to talk. We got along great. It was fun.
“He never got super outwardly emotional. It was maybe the worst round he’s ever played. But I don’t think he ever got disrespectful out there. He was super courteous. It was nice to see that. I was pretty nervous. I was trying to stay out of his way.
“He just told me, ‘Heck of a round,’ and everything like that. I told him I hoped to play with him again soon.”
Tiger’s third-round stats were curious. He hit seven fairways—he’d hit only nine in the first 36 holes. He hit nine greens in regulation, failed to get up and down for par from four bunkers and had 32 putts. He had only 24 and 27 putts the first two days. The big problem was his scoring. He had six bogeys, two doubles and a quad.
At 18, Tiger hit his tee shot left into the creek. No surprise, since he’d blocked one so far right Thursday that it went out of bounds. From there, he hit it short of the green, needed two more shots to get on the putting surface and two-putted for 8.
It was not pretty. The U.S. Open is two weeks away. Tiger’s game is a mess.
What’s wrong with Tiger? There are plenty of theories, take your pick:
The Gap. He is still in transition between swings, trying to get the hang of what his latest coach, Chris Como, wants him to do. Thursday, Tiger was proud of how he fought back after a bad front side and how he ignored the temptation to revert to an old swing in an attempt to save a score and stuck with what he’s trying to do. He was proud of the 33 that salvaged a 73 on a day when Memorial scores were low-low-low. It was a minor victory. Saturday, there was no rally, just more big numbers, 42-43.
The Bodyworks. Tiger is 39, he’s had multiple knee surgeries and last year added a back surgery. Tiger was a golfer who always relied on “reps,” as he liked to call them. He hit a lot of balls on the range, just like Ben Hogan found the secret in the dirt. The state of Tiger’s body is such now that physically, he may not be able to hit as many balls as he used to or as many balls as he needs to.
The Drive. One writer talked admiringly about how Woods stayed late on the range Friday and was the last one hitting balls as dusk fell. Other observers get the feeling that Tiger nowadays does most of his practicing when he’s at a tournament and not very much when he’s at home. When he struggled with his short game in Phoenix this year, it was obvious he hadn’t practiced much. He returned to play the following week at Torrey Pines after that debacle and had spent much of that week watching now-former love interest Lindsey Vonn compete in racing, not working on his game. He pulled out during the first round with back pain.
The Mission. Tiger’s father, Earl, made a bold prediction after his son won the U.S. Amateur at in Newport Country Club in Rhode Island. In a post-win celebration, Earl raised a toast to his son and declared, “Here’s to my son, Tiger. Someday, he’s going to win 14 major championships.”
Earl was very proud of his son, sometimes to the point of being a blowhard in the eyes of some critics. He was right about a lot of things. As bombastic as he could be, Earl didn’t say Tiger would win 18 majors or 19 majors, he said 14. Well, Tiger got his 14th major title back in 2008. As a former President once said, “Mission accomplished!”
The Swing Syndrome. Amateur golfers call it paralysis by analysis. That’s when you’ve got so many swing thoughts in your head, you can’t execute any of them with any focus. Woods has gone through one swing change after another—from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney to Sean Foley to Chris Como.
Tiger keeps saying, “It’s a process,” but he has chosen to change the process more than any other top player and it hasn’t worked. Haney’s book on Tiger showed how important range work was for Woods. He may simply have too many swing thoughts and too much muscle memory from all those previous swings to consistently produce great golf the way he used to.
The Scandal. You could argue that Tiger was never going to be the same player after his sexcapades came to light in late 2009 and led to his divorce. He always had an air of invincibility that bred an air of intimidation. That episode broke his vision of himself and his confidence. Sure, he came back and won five times in one season but when he did get in contention in majors again a few times, he melted like cheese on the weekend and didn’t resemble any Tiger Woods we’d ever seen. Something was different, something was forever changed.
Time. Throw out Jack Nicklaus. He was golf’s greatest one-off freak. He was a long and straight driver of the ball, a great putter and no one played the game at such a high level for as long as Jack did. The other great players, their window of major-championship winning play was six to eight years, maybe ten years. Tiger had a 13-year run from 1996 through 2008. That’s better than most. Put simply, time’s up.
Pick your theory. There are kernels of truth in all of them.
Where Woods goes from here? There is no easy path ahead and to be honest, it doesn’t feel all that important what comes next.
At this moment, it feels like the right time to say, “Thanks for the memories.”