Tiger’s game hits rock bottom with shockingly awful week at Firestone

December 9, 2011

It's impossible to chart the exact low point in the life of Tiger Woods over the last eight months. As Woods said, there were so many of them, and just when he thought it couldn't get worse, it did.

But with his shockingly awful four-day performance at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, where he'd won an unprecedented seven times, Woods practically shouted it from the trees: His game has hit bottom.

Woods shot a final-round 77 to finish 18 over and second from last among the 80 players who completed 72 holes. His new best friend? Henrik Stenson, who was 20 over and dead last.

The bright spots for Woods are these:

He didn't break any clubs (that we know of). He didn't curse on network TV, because he was done playing before CBS had a chance to come on the air. And he didn't wrap his driver around the neck of the guy who said after his 74 Thursday, "You're washed up, Tiger. Give it up."

(Smart non-move by Woods: A man's lawyers can handle only so much.)

Oh, and there was this: Phil Mickelson again failed to take Tiger's No. 1 ranking.

Needing to finish fourth at worst, Phil, who began Sunday tied for 10th place, was nine over through 14 holes and shot 78.

So Woods remains No. 1 as he heads to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, starting Thursday, although it's debatable whether he could make the match play portion of the U.S. Amateur.

"I need to hit the ball better," he said. "I need to chip better, I need to putt better, and I need to score better."

Bridgestone does not have a cut, but in hindsight Woods probably wishes it did. If he had left town after his 74-72, he could have avoided the 75-77.

"Shooting 18 over par is not fun," he said, although he did share some lighter moments in a final-round pairing with pal and Nike stable-mate Anthony Kim, who shot 76 to finish 16 over.

"There was a lot of chatter," said Kim, who hadn't played since an operation on his thumb in early May. "We hit so many golf shots and they were all in the trees, so while we were walking in the trees together we had a lot of talking going on."

How did it come to this?

Even after his self-imposed, four-plus-month exile from the game in the wake of his Thanksgiving-night car crash, Woods showed flashes of form, finishing T4 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. He was never in contention at the British Open at St. Andrews, where he struggled with his putting, but he was encouraged by his newfound accuracy off the tee.

At Firestone he had nothing.

Was he awful? Or would it be better to say he was scattershot? How about dangerous? He was all of the above. Woods lost his tee ball so far right on 15 on Sunday that he nailed a spectator, who got a glove and a ball for his troubles.

Tiger caught it fat, hit into the water and slashed through the trees, but all too rarely did he find the cup.

"Get in the hole," he said sarcastically under his breath after one particularly risible shot earlier in the week.

The numbers painted a grim picture. Since turning pro, Woods hadn't finished worse than tied for 60th in an event in which he completed four rounds, and that was in his first start, the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.

At Firestone, his 10 total birdies were obliterated by 22 bogeys and three doubles as he tied for 78th place with Swede Michael Jonzon.

Dead last in the field in fairways hit (22 of 56), Woods rattled around the prodigious trees at Firestone to set a new personal mark for highest score in relation to par (18 over), and his 298 total was 39 strokes worse than his tournament-record score at the 2000 Bridgestone.

He hit fewer than half the greens in regulation (35 of 72), failed to break par in any round, and his closing 77 matched his highest final-round score as a pro.

This was the kind of golf we expected from Woods at 54, not 34.

Woods needs five majors to eclipse the record 18 major championship titles held by Jack Nicklaus, but the way he's playing now, you wonder if Woods has got five more victories of any kind in him.

As Kim put it, "He's just not the regular Tiger we're used to seeing."

Sure to drop from ninth in Ryder Cup points, Woods will not make the U.S. team purely on merit barring a big week at Whistling Straits, where on Thursday and Friday he will play with Vijay Singh and 2009 champion Y.E. Yang.

Although U.S. captain Corey Pavin would previously have been considered daring for leaving Woods off the squad — Pavin gets four wild-card picks — he would now get bravery points for picking him.

Barring a good showing at the PGA or the next week's Wyndham Championship (not an event he usually plays), Woods will go to the Barclays, the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events, in danger of being cut from the remaining three.

The '09 FedEx Cup champion, he vowed to keep working on his game, which he admitted hasn't been this off since he rebuilt his swing under Butch Harmon in the late '90s. It took him two years then to rediscover his A-game.

He's older now, though. His left knee isn't as strong, and he's been battered by an unprecedented tabloid tornado. It has been, as Woods said Sunday, a long year.

"I think I can turn it around," he said, but it wasn't clear when that might be.

Arnold Palmer eventually lost his game, as did Nicklaus. Even Usain Bolt lost a 100-meter dash over the weekend.

Woods may or may not be washed up, but over four warm days in Akron, he gave us the clearest picture yet of what he'll look like when that day comes.