For a moment Sunday afternoon Tiger Woods tried to set the way-back machine to 2000, when he owned the PGA Tour and everyone else had the good sense to get the hell out of his way. As his birdie putt rolled into the cup on the 16th hole at Cog Hill, the club formerly known as the home of the Western Open, Woods gave his A+ fist pump, theatrical as they come, selling it all the way for the viewing pleasure of the crowd and displeasure of Trevor Immelman, suddenly nursing only a one-stroke lead in the fairway.
"It'll put a scare into him," ABC's Nick Faldo said, "because he'll hear it. He'll hear it, he'll see it, he'll feel it." The prediction seemed sensible enough. Not only had Immelman never won, he'd kicked away the 2006 Wachovia Championship and EDS Byron Nelson Championship in consecutive weeks. He's 26 and wouldn't make the list of the Top 5 Most Famous South African golfers. And in 2000 Immelman—or most anyone else really—would have wilted in the glare of Tiger's theatrics. Just ask Matt Gogel.
But not now.
Unfazed, Immelman stuck an 8-iron to 10 feet from the pin, rolled in his own birdie to regain his two-stroke lead, and went bogey-birdie on 17 and 18 to win by two.
"I enjoyed watching him do that," he said later, when asked about Woods' run of four birdies in a span of six holes on the back nine.
Enjoyed it? That does it: Here lies the intimidation factor of Tiger Woods. It's gone, history, kaput—survived by Frank the Headcover, Stevo Williams and a branding juggernaut that shows no sign of letting up.
Woods's power has waned only inside the ropes, where it matters most. That laser-like stare, that earth-shaking fist-pump we grew to know and love—relics of the past, both of them. Woods commands respect, but the shock and awe is over and out. His aura's slow leak began when a rotund Australian named Peter O'Malley beat him in the first round of the 2002 Accenture Match Play Championship, worsened when Rich Beem refused to buckle under a Woods rally at the PGA Championship that summer, and continues today.
Everyone knows that Woods, 30, probably won't ever return to the level he was at in 2000, when he won nine times, including three majors, and at 24 became the youngest player to achieve the career Grand Slam. That player is gone. In his heyday he never missed by as much as he did on the 15th hole Sunday, when he hit an iron from 205 yards so far right he gave shank a whole new meaning. And if he did miss by that much, somebody's camera ended up in the lake.
But the worst part of it is the spate of recent successes that's bolstered Woods' thorniest competitors, i.e. the guys who pose the biggest long-term threat.
The knock on 20-somethings is they'll never be dangerous until they fill their brains with something other than "South Park," Blaupunk speakers and Bud Light, but that's the old way of thinking. Thanks to the proliferation of junior tours and amateur golf opportunities, these kids are good—and ready to win ASAP. United States Open and WGC-Accenture champion Geoff Ogilvy, 29, leads the group, but he was a late-bloomer. His pal Adam Scott, who will turn 26 this week, is a 3.5-time winner on Tour, thanks to his unofficial victory at the 2005 Nissan Open. Luke Donald, 28, won earlier this year, as did his Walker Cup teammate Paul Casey, 28, albeit on the Euro Tour. Ben Curtis, 29, finally followed up his 2003 British Open win with a victory at the Booz Allen Classic two weeks ago. FBR Open winner J.B. Holmes is 24. Vaughn Taylor, 30, quietly won the Reno-Tahoe Open each of the last two years and is threatening to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And now there's Immelman. And there are others, of course, whom Tiger has no doubt noticed, since they possess the very Woodsy combo of skill and fearlessness. Guys like Ryan Moore, 23; Camilo Villegas, 24; Bubba Watson, 27; and Hunter Mahan, 24.
"My personal opinion is you're not really going to reach your prime until 30," Immelman said Sunday, but that conventional wisdom no longer looks so wise. Woods may have peaked in his 20s, Vijay Singh in his 40s, and there's no telling where the next challenge is going to come from, so deep is the pool of capable players. "I'd need that first round back, shooting 1-over-par," Woods said, when a reporter asked if he'd like a mulligan on his wild second shot on 15 on Sunday. "Nowadays you can't shoot 1-over-par in a regular Tour event and expect to win. For some reason 1-over-par used to win tournaments. Now it needs to be 2- or 3-under par on your bad day."
In other words, Woods' quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors isn't a foregone conclusion anymore. Not with guys like Ogilvy coming at him from one demo and Singh and Fred Couples from the other, plus the challenges posed by fellow thirty-somethings Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and especially Phil Mickelson. Woods may yet rediscover his swagger, but intimidation happens over time, from one jaw-dropping feat to the next, and it doesn't seem to carry over from TV to real life. You've got to show the magic up-close, in-person, to spook 'em. Among the current crop of talented 20-30 year olds, only Scott, Sergio Garcia, 26, and a few others have seen it, so on the crucial task of rebuilding his aura, Woods is pretty much starting from scratch.
Until that fist pump starts working again the way it's supposed to, like a lightning bolt instead of a cotton ball, he shouldn't expect much help in breaking Jack's record.
|Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected]|