For a minute there, it was easy to forget.
In the golden twilight last Saturday at St. Andrews, Tiger Woods was making what he calls “the greatest walk in golf”—up the 18th fairway of the Old Course, through an amphitheater of towering bleachers and ancient buildings, their balconies packed with fans anachronistically clutching binoculars. The crowd was roaring for Woods, who at the 356-yard home hole had driven his ball onto the green before it trickled back off the front edge.
Saturdays used to belong to Tiger; it was when he built the leads that staked him to 14 major championships. Back then he played in a bubble of his own making, but now he was soaking in the scene, gesturing to the gallery. Woods sent his eagle try racing toward the hole, and a couple of feet out raised his putter triumphantly. But the ball skittered six feet by, and he missed the comebacker. Just like that, we were back in the glum present.
Woods wasn’t looking to extend a lead but merely punching the clock on a weather-delayed second round. Seven over par heading into his final hole, he wasn’t even close to the cut line. But the letdown at the last underscored that even when nothing is at stake, Woods can no longer summon the slightest flair for the dramatic. Trudging off the green—to polite, almost embarrassed applause—he looked more broken than at any time during this woebegone season. The chip-yipped 82 at Phoenix was shocking, the 85 at Memorial alarming and the 80 at the U.S. Open depressing, but this felt like a requiem. The Old Course is Woods’s favorite track in the world, and in his previous start, at the Greenbrier, he had his best ball-striking week in two years. Said a subdued Tiger on Saturday night, “I felt like I was playing well enough to win this event.”
This Open at the Old Course was always going to be a measure of how far Woods has fallen. In 2000 he won there during the most dominant season in golf history. He won again in ’05, by five, for his 10th major title, and Woods was making history with seemingly every swing. In ’10, still reeling from the fallout of his tabloid-fueled sex scandal, he finished tied for 23rd. Woods won five Tour events in ’13 and seemed to be building toward bigger things, but that now looks like a last gasp. He’s winless since then and has become a nonfactor at the majors. Last week’s 76–75 left him tied for 147th in a field of 156. Woods’s tournament was over essentially 15 minutes into the opening round. After striking it beautifully on the range, he chunked a 3-iron off the 1st tee, then duffed an 8-iron into the burn. It was the seventh time in his eight tournaments this year that he started with a bogey. Maybe the most imperious golfer ever has developed stage fright.
Where does he go from here? Woods said on Saturday night that he would consult a launch monitor to check his spin rates in hopes of better understanding why he struggled in the wind. Once an artist, he has turned into a mad scientist, laboring to master the fifth swing of his pro career. Two of them have come since his fall from grace as he has desperately sought reinvention. When Woods owned the game, he had a deep sense of entitlement; in his mind he deserved to win simply because he was Tiger Woods. All that was stripped away in the tawdriest scandal of the media age. No wonder he has been looking for swing clues by watching video of his teenaged self—this divorced father of two is still trying to figure out who he is, on and off the golf course.
Woods, 39, has time to turn things around; Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship at 40, to say nothing of the Masters at 46. But Nicklaus’s life and his game were always grounded in stability, with only his motivation coming and going.
Among the seven players Woods beat last week were Sir Nick Faldo, 58, playing his final Open at the Old Course, and Tom Watson, 65, who said goodbye to his favorite tournament after 38 years. Hard to believe that Woods has joined their ranks as nothing more than a ceremonial golfer.