Will Tiger Woods ever get his game back? Here's hoping he does

Will Tiger Woods ever get his game back? Here’s hoping he does

Tiger Woods, Monday at Whistling Straits
John Biever/SI

I suppose it is possible for Tiger Woods to win this week’s PGA Championship. But I don’t see how, and worse, it appears that Tiger does not see how. After last week’s WGC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Woods sounded like a man who would rather eat a golf club than swing one. Now he’ll try to resuscitate his game at long, windy Whistling Straits, where he is even money to run out of balls.

I’m not here to rip apart Woods’s game. (It looks like somebody already did.) I’m not here to say what’s wrong, that he needs a swing coach, that he deserves this little stretch of professional misery or that he should or shouldn’t be on the Ryder Cup team.

I just want to say: I miss Tiger Woods.

He was the greatest show in sports. Golf, more than team sports, needs stars, because there is no geographic pull. If you live in Denver and the Broncos make the playoffs without any stars, then hey, go Broncos! But without stars, golf is just a bunch of strangers hitting balls with sticks.

Tiger Woods was the biggest star golf ever had. There was something viscerally thrilling about watching him on the course. He seemed like he’d dropped in from another planet. Everything about him was different from almost every other golfer, from his demeanor (he rarely interacted with fans) to his upper body to his outfits (which were never overrun with corporate logos) to his name to his skin color to his skills. He seemed like he was playing a different game, and there was nothing like it in sports.

Until last November, we knew almost nothing about him, which frustrated sportswriters but also added to his mystique. His gifts were so remarkable that the public didn’t need to know anything else about him. Nobody cares about Mozart’s politics.

This sounds weird, but Tiger was a lot more interesting when we knew nothing about him. Now we know he sends silly texts and sleeps with ladies other than his wife. So what? You can say that about most of the NBA. (As a side note: how come half of Tiger Woods’s mistresses are referred to as “porn stars”? Is everybody who appears in an adult movie a star? Are there porn character actors? Porn supporting actors? Are the people who say this the same ones who think Rudy Gay and Rashard Lewis are NBA stars?)

I wrote before last month’s British Open that the people who count Tiger out are making a mistake, but also doing him a favor. My point was that it’s way too early to think Tiger won’t be Tiger again — but also that the public needs him to go away before it embraces him again. He has to do his penance.

My great, great friend Joe Posnanski responded by writing that Woods has always been a frontrunner, never a guy who thrives on being underestimated. (No argument there.) Joe also wrote that maybe people SHOULD count Tiger out, because very few golfers have won four or five majors (what Tiger needs to tie and surpass Jack Nicklaus) after the age of 35.

And on that, I disagree. I just don’t think you can compare Tiger Woods to other golfers who stopped winning in their mid-’30s — even all-time greats like Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson or Nick Faldo. As great as those golfers were, none of them was even close to as dominant as Tiger Woods.

From 1974 to 1984, Watson won 36 PGA Tour events. From 1999 to 2009, Woods won 64 PGA Tour events.

Woods has won 14 major championships; Faldo and Palmer won 13 combined.

The only logical golfing comparison for Tiger is the man he is chasing: Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus turned 35 in 1975; after that, he won four majors. Nicklaus did not watch his life turn into a reality TV show, like Tiger has. (Nicklaus was lucky enough to live in an era without reality TV shows.) But Nicklaus did almost go broke, he was raising a bunch of kids, he was running his businesses and — perhaps most importantly — he was not chasing a record. He already owned it. I think it’s fair to say that in Nicklaus’s final years as an elite golfer, he was not as focused on winning majors as he had been in his early years.

“It’s been a long year,” Tiger Woods said at least twice last weekend, and he hinted that he was surprised his game didn’t completely fall apart before this weekend.

Barring a stunning turnaround this weekend, let’s just call 2010 a mulligan in the golf career of Tiger Woods. Whatever he is going through at home must be miserable, but people have moved on from worse. I still believe he has the talent, discipline and drive to get his game back. But then: I want to believe that. I want to see the Tiger we didn’t know again.

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