Tiger Woods's new reality: he's just like every other golfer

Tiger Woods’s new reality: he’s just like every other golfer

Tiger Woods looked ordinary on Sunday, when he made five bogeys over his first 10 holes.
Al Tielemans/SI

Every so often, an announcer will say EXACTLY what you happened to be thinking. It doesn’t happen often, of course, which is why there are more Websites with names like “Fire Joe Morgan” than “Ian Eagle Rules” (which he does). But it does happen, now and again, and over the weekend Johnny Miller said exactly what I was thinking when watching Tiger Woods play.

His line: “He looks like everybody else now.”

Yes. That was it exactly. That was what struck me watching Tiger Woods play sluggish, then brilliant, then bizarre golf at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. His game — genius at times, awkward at others — seemed indistinguishable from the other top players. He hit good shots. He hit bad ones. He charged. He bowed to the pressure. He finished three shots back.

Sure, we all know that Tiger Woods has absurd golfing skills. We all know that he has competitive hunger. We all know that he has a sense of the moment, the way Jordan did, the way Nicklaus did, the way Montana did.

But what made Tiger Woods different was, well, that he WAS different. He simply didn’t play the same game other golfers played. He didn’t miss eight-foot par putts under pressure. He didn’t make double bogeys when the heat was on. Television announcers would say, “That’s an IMPOSSIBLE up-and-down,” and he would make it up and down. On-course commentators would say, “He really has no shot at the green from there,” and he would put it on the green from there. The moments that rattled other golfers did not rattle him. The false breaks and sneaky flag placements that tricked other golfers didn’t trick him. The ever-changing scoreboard and momentum that left other golfers unsure of how aggressive to play never swayed Tiger Woods. He didn’t win every time, of course, but he never lost. He was a man apart.

The very first sporting event I ever covered was a girls high school basketball game, and it featured a player named Andrea Stinson, who would go on to become one of the great women’s basketball players of her time. Anyway, they told me to watch out for her, and I said, “How will I know which one she is?” And they said, “Oh, you’ll know.” Sure enough: I watched warm-ups and immediately knew. There was something exclusive about her, about the way she dribbled, the way she shot lay-ups, the way she carried herself. She wasn’t only better, she was different. That’s how it was with Tiger Woods, too. There were the greatest golfers on earth … and then there was him. Golf is a game of failure, but it wasn’t for him. Golf is a game of punishing mistakes, but he worked out reprieve after reprieve. Golf is a game where you can’t just will in a long putt because you need it to go in, but somehow Tiger Woods could. He seemed able to muster whatever he needed whenever he needed it.

That part of him is gone now. Maybe he will get it back. Maybe he will not. But, for the moment, it’s gone. Tiger Woods looked like everybody else. Sure, he hit some amazing shots. He also hit some terrible ones. He made a great run at the championship. And he fell off the pace. He shot a superhuman 31 on the back-nine on Saturday. He shot an all-too-human five bogeys in his first 10 holes on Sunday.

“I made three mental mistakes,” he snapped in one of the shorter television interviews of 2010. “And the only thing it cost us was a chance to win the U.S. Open.”

Now, let’s not get carried away: We are only two major championships into Tiger Woods’ “comeback” — and he finished in the top five in both of them. So it’s hardly fair to say that Woods’ game looks all that different. The guy still has ludicrous golfing skills. He could go to St. Andrews and win the British Open by 10 shots and I don’t think anybody would be even mildly surprised. He could go on to win the next four major championships, and I don’t think the papers would be filled with obituaries of people dying of shock.

But, it’s true that he looks different. Or, more to the point, he doesn’t look different. He suddenly looks like he’s out there grinding with the rest of the grinders, sweating with the field, trying desperately to slay the short, twisting putts and sloping greens that batter and maim everyone else. Maybe it wasn’t easier for Tiger Woods to play golf, but it sure looked easier. And now, it doesn’t.

I have spent many hours listening to Tom Watson talk about what makes someone the best golfer in the world … and he often uses the word “balance.” That has always seemed to me to be one of those vague sports words that could mean pretty much anything — like “leadership skills,” or “gamer,” or the dreaded “intangibles” — but Watson has a very specific idea of what balance means.

The way I understand it, Watson’s idea of balance is a combination of four things:

1. Skill (that mix of talent and hard work)
2. Confidence (that certainty that you can do exactly what you are trying to do)
3. Focus (the ability to think only about what matters in the moment)
4. Perspective (the capability to neither make the shot too important or not important enough)

The way Watson explained it, balance can come crashing down if your skill fades, your confidence is shaken, you don’t learn from your experiences or if the moment overwhelms you (or in certain cases underwhelms you).

Tiger always had perfect balance on the golf course. He may not have had it in his life, but that’s a whole other thing and — much to the chagrin and surprise of many — entirely beside the point. The most balanced PEOPLE don’t win. The most balanced GOLFERS do. Tiger Woods was the most balanced golfer. His skill was unmatched. His confidence was sure. His focus was legendary. And his perspective was surprisingly rational considering how badly he wanted to win. The combination made him seem unbeatable. And seeming unbeatable is just about as good as being unbeatable.

Well, his skills are still there. But his confidence … not so much. His focus … not so much. Maybe these things will come back, maybe they won’t. But there’s the matter of perspective. And this, it seems to me, is where Tiger Woods has changed for good. He can never go back to being the old Tiger. This isn’t only because of his tango with the tabloids. Woods turns 35 this year. This is hardly over the hill for a golfer … but he’s no kid anymore, either. His neck hurts. His knee has been operated on. He’s been scarred. Certain feelings come with age, certain doubts, certain pains, certain challenges. Tiger Woods may still be the best golfer in the world, but he will never be the Tiger Woods of 10 years ago. And that is a hard realization.

As time goes on, he will become more and more ordinary. That’s the one sure thing in sports and in life.

Over the weekend, I put up a poll on my blog — I actually put it up just before Tiger Woods had his amazing back-nine at Pebble Beach on Saturday. He shot 31 on the back-nine, 66 for the round, and put himself in great position to win the U.S. Open after a lackluster first two days. I had this strange feeling that a round like that was coming — he just seemed due for it. So I thought the poll timing was perfect.

Anyway, the poll question was simply: Will Tiger Woods break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?

The poll, so far, shows what I suspected: Most people seem to believe (with varying degrees of confidence) that Woods will break Nicklaus’ record. He just seems to have so much time left — five prime years for sure, maybe another five or 10 good years after that. There are so many majors ahead. He has won 14 already. Sure. He will win five more. How could you believe anything else?

Only, here’s the thing: Five major championships is hall of fame career. It’s MORE than a Hall of Fame career. Phil Mickelson has not won five majors in his career. Vijay Singh has not won five majors. Ernie Els has not won five majors. Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Johnny Miller, none of these men won five majors. Davis Love, Greg Norman and Fred Couples have not won five majors combined. There’s still a whole Seve Ballesteros career between Tiger Woods and the record. There’s still a Byron Nelson between Tiger Woods and the record. He cannot break the record by being very good. He has to be transcendent again.

I’m beginning to wonder, more and more, if Woods actually might not break the record. Yes, there’s a lot of golf left in his brilliant career. Yes, he’s still in the early stages of reinventing himself. Yes, despite his Sunday troubles (and, to be fair, those troubles happened on a vengeful Pebble Beach, where not one golfer managed to shoot under par for the week) Woods was in contention to the end, and he hit the ball well for the most part, and he hit a couple of shots for the ages, and at times looked like he’s getting his groove back. Yes he remains the best golfer in the world and the favorite at St. Andrews and for all the major championships in the foreseeable future. Yes, he still wants it desperately, and the smart money won’t bet against Tiger Woods.

But Johnny Miller was right … this week, at least, Tiger Woods looked pretty much like the other golfers. This was another chance lost. This was another major championship torn off the calendar. Will he get it back? Maybe. But time goes by faster than anyone wants to believe.

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