KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — You hit the clicker on Sunday morning, and there it was: live seaside golf, Tiger in his red shirt, last group of the day, white caps behind him. It wasn't the British Open. It wasn't a greatest hit rewind from Royal Liverpool or the Old Course, from his stirring victories there. It was live from the PGA Championship, and it was a nightmare for him.
Tiger Woods will win a 15th major. But it didn't happen this week on this ocean-front course with plastic-grass greens. He let a raft of people blow by him when he played seven holes in three over in Part I of his third round (Saturday afternoon) and failed to move up during Part II (Sunday morning), when he played 11 holes in one under. A third-round 74 in a major, followed by a fourth-round 72. So, so strange. So not like the Tiger we remember, from back in the day. So like the Tiger of 2012.
He used to own Saturday afternoons like "Seinfeld" owned Thursday nights. That's how he won those 14 majors. You know all about that. On Saturday, he was ruthless. He beat the guy he was playing with and the rest of the field, too. Come Sunday, all he had to do was have a good warm-up session, get his head on right, and play chess. He made it look easy. It was so predictable, it was almost boring.
But his third-round scores at the majors this year — at the U.S. Open and the British Open and now the PGA Championship — have been downright weird. On Saturday at Olympic, he began the day tied for the lead and put up a 75 and finished nowhere. On Saturday at Royal Lytham, after opening 67-67, Woods shot a third-round 70. It wasn't a title-killer or anything like it. But it was a day when guys were going low and Tiger didn't. The climb he left himself for Sunday was too steep. At Kiawah, he was tied for the lead through two rounds, and tied for sixth place after three. He hit it left, he hit it right, he flubbed a chip, he missed a short putt.
He looked ordinary.
(Related photos: Sunday at the 2012 PGA)
He still draws, by far, the largest galleries in the game. But pandemonium is a fading memory. They're watching, respectfully, a legend. A legend who can still win. (Three victories in 2012!) A legend who will win majors again. (That's what we're saying here.) But a legend who has changed before our eyes. We're still trying to catch up to the player he has become. It's hard to accept, because the images we have of the player he was are some of the most powerful images in the history of sports.
You can say Tiger Woods doesn't swing like he did in 2000. He doesn't, but he swings plenty well enough. You can say he doesn't putt like he did in 2000. That's true, too, but nobody may ever putt like that again. As he noted himself this week, he won the 2000 U.S. Open without missing a single putt within 10 feet. That's the only way you can win by 15.
The problem is both fundamental and nearly impossible to fix. He wants it too much.
You can see it. He wears his Buddhist bracelet, but he's not playing Zen golf. These major championships are really all that are left for him, in terms of athletic achievement, and the only thing that can let him reclaim his place in the pantheon of the world population. It's too much to ask. His psychologist — a profane, jazz-loving, semi-manipulative genius named Earl — is dead, and nobody can replace him.
When Tiger was in his mid and late 20s, he'd talk — not often, just now and again — about how surprised he was to be winning majors at the clip he was winning them. All he had to do was play his golf and it was enough. What could be easier than that?
And now, all these years later, he's 36 and still, incredibly, the best golfer in the world. He will surely win majors again because the best players in the world almost always win majors, here and there. Nick Price won three. Greg Norman won two. Tom Lehman won one. Vijay Singh won three. You have that much talent, sooner or later it all comes together and you win a major. But everything has to come together. Look what Tiger has to do to fulfill his childhood dream and catch Jack. Tiger has 14 majors. Jack has 18. He needs to be Greg Norman and Vijay Singh combined to beat him, starting now and going for the next 15 years.
And now his wait for next year begins. The Aprils are looming larger and larger and larger for Tiger. The stakes are higher and higher and higher. Considering his career, with his 14 major titles, he once told his teacher Hank Haney, "I'm satisfied." Maybe he was, then, before Thanksgiving 2009. He's not now. His scores will tell you that. We all want what we don't have, right? Tiger wants to turn back the clock, and nobody has figured out how to do that. Not Einstein. Not Tiger. Nobody.