Woods is battling his own demons, but don't count him out at the PGA

Woods is battling his own demons, but don’t count him out at the PGA

Tiger Woods has yet to win since his car accident in November 2009.
Fred Vuich/SI

As Tiger tries to win his 15th major this week at the PGA Championship and does his usual scripted public talking before and during it, it might be helpful to remember that he is the son of a soldier and is an expert in subterfuge. In other words, he’s not direct, not open, not forthcoming. I sometimes wonder if I’m a co-conspirator and an enabler, simply by passing along what he says. With Tiger, you really have to decide for yourself what’s going on.

Since coming back from (euphemism alert) his November 2009 hydrant thing, Woods has played 19 Tour events and has not won. Of course, for any other player, that’s no big deal, but Woods has set the bar crazily high. He has blamed his performance, particularly this year, on two main things: learning his new swing and healing his broken body. You don’t hear him talking about the state of his short putting, or the state of his head. My guess is that’s the true one-two punch, Demon No. 1 and Demon No. 2. (That word demon is not my own. I got it from a guy, a spectator and Tiger fan, in Akron last week.)

I’m not blaming Woods for walking us down his own primrose path. He can do what he wants. He’s no different from anybody else, trying to figure out a way to get through the day, trying to protect himself. You have golfers, like Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, who were ruthlessly honest about analyzing their golfing weaknesses. But it’s rare. What Woods is doing is no different from what Greg Norman did for years. It’s way easier to talk about full swing changes than to talk about what goes wrong on yard-long putts. It’s way easier to talk about healing a sore Achilles than it is to talk about the trauma of walking through a world where people know intimate details about your private life, or think they do. Woods’s attitude, in all matters, is: It’s none of your business. Any of it. He really doesn’t like being a public person. That makes his life fundamentally difficult, because, you know, he’s a public person. He’s one of the most famous people in the world. It can’t be easy, being Tiger Woods right now.

On Tour, there are veteran Tiger-watchers who will tell you that he never missed from within five feet in the 2000 season. I don’t know if that’s true. There are no Shotlink stats for short putts available from 2000. I’ll try to ask Stevie (Steve Williams) this week, now that he’s suddenly talking to sportswriters. But it must be close to true. I can’t remember him missing anything short during that magical year, when he likely played golf better than anybody has ever played it. Can you?

Imagine how confidently you could chip and lag putt if you knew everything from five feet and in was a gimme. When you’re making everything, your long game starts to look a whole lot better than it really is. The fact is, Tiger’s tee-to-green game was nothing like perfect a decade ago, when he and Adam Scott shared a swing and a coach (Butch Harmon). The reason people still speak of Hogan with awe is because he did what he did almost entirely by way of his tee-to-green game. All of Tiger’s game is now less than perfect.

He’s been working on swing changes with Sean Foley for more than a year now. Granted, Tiger’s been in his rehab boot for some of that time, and his playing schedule has been erratic. But his old method was to groove it on the range and then simply bring it to the course. Now he’s saying he can do it on the range, make the swings he wants to make, and he can do it at home when playing money matches with his buddies. But he’s struggling to make the new swing work in tournament play. That’s new.

Last week, at the World Golf Championship event where he finished in the middle of the pack, he said his problem was that the ball was going too far and too straight. (We should all have such problems.) In the history of golf, have you ever heard of a world-class player taking so long to make swing changes? Nicklaus’s swing evolved as he got older. Watson’s too. Hogan made one dramatic change that allowed him to go from rabbit to world-beater, and then he stuck with it. Snead’s swing, Norman’s swing, Nick Price’s swing, they never changed, not appreciably. I asked Woods recently if we’re making too much of a fuss about these supposedly radical changes in his swing. I can barely see them. But he said the new “Foley” swing vs. the old “Haney” swing is night-and-day. He would know. But we can still decide for ourselves what’s really going on.

The amount of valuable airtime Golf Channel spends discussing his swing changes would be bizarre, except for the fact that people can’t get enough of Woods. Even people suffering from Tiger Fatigue, as I sometimes do, can get drawn back to him with one round of 68, which he shot in last week’s first round. He’s about the only person in the game who is a total fascination. He and Stevie Williams.

Here’s a minor mark of Woods’s excellence, even now, with his poor putting and his damaged psyche. In those 19 events since the hydrant thing, he still had three chances to win, and they were all in majors. Last year’s Masters. This year’s Masters. Last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He tied for fourth in all three. This week at the Atlanta Athletic Club, even with the snarling rough and the super-fast, sloping greens that will make lag putting a nightmare, you write off Tiger Woods at your own peril. It’s a major. He gets up for majors.

Getting to 19 major victories (he’s been stuck at 14 since the ’08 U.S. Open) is the one remaining thing on his professional to-do list. All three of those T-4 finishes would have been wins with Tiger 2000 short putting. But this is not a video game. This is his life. On Saturday in Akron, on the 18th hole, Tiger had a three-footer for par to end his day. He took at least 40 seconds to size it up, looking at it from both sides, going through his routine, taking a practice stroke. His putt didn’t hit the hole. I gasped. We’ve been so conditioned to seeing Tiger make everything.

Later that day, I was talking to Zach Johnson about it. He had shot a moving day 64 and had, he said, one of the best putting rounds of his life. He and Tiger are both 35 and Johnson believes, and many do not, that you can become a better putter at that age. He wasn’t that shocked to hear about Tiger missing another short one. He still remembers a putt Tiger had in 2009, at a FedEx Cup playoff event at Liberty National, on the 72nd hole. He had maybe a 7-footer that would have made him the leader in the clubhouse. It was another seize-the-day moment, his specialty. This was just a couple of weeks after Woods had lost the 2009 PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang. He missed putts against Yang, and he missed that one at Liberty National, too. Johnson, sitting on his bag on the side of the green, was shocked. “He always made the putts he had to make,” he said last week. “How many times did he do it?”

As for Tiger’s head . . . I’m not going to go there. Too much guesswork. It must be frail. Who is he playing for now? Do his kids care about his golf? (Do your kids care about your work?) Is Tiger lonely? Can he practice with the intensity and purpose he once did, all these years later? We cannot know. There was a lot of entertaining hyperbole coming out of Steve Williams last week, after his win with Adam Scott, but one thing was obviously true: he brought a lot of intensity to Scott. It was Tigeresque, the way he never gave up.

Tiger and Stevie are fussing now about how the firing went down, but it doesn’t matter. When Williams started working for Scott, that was the first step in his divorce with Woods. Yes, Williams asked Tiger for permission, but just by asking, Williams was saying it was over. You don’t see any of the elite caddies picking up off-week work anymore, and Tiger’s the most possessive man in golf. Ever since Tiger’s first Fresh Start Tour, which began at Augusta last year, the most celebrated caddie-player relationship in golf was all but dead. For 12 years, when Williams talked to reporters about Woods’s golf, which he seldom did, it was never direct or revealing, just the way Tiger wanted it. Then he won with another man, and the floodgates opened. I never thought I’d find Williams likable, but at that moment I did.

I wish Tiger would take a page from him, but it will never happen. He’ll keep us in the dark. It really doesn’t matter. He knows what Bill Parcells knows, and what we know too: your results say where you are. At Akron, Tiger was tied for 37th. Maybe this week he’ll win, even if fourth is a much better guess.

At Akron, I talked to a fan, a 71-year-old man named Frank Renfroe, a bogey golfer from Indiana who has seen a lot of golf in his life and played a lot, too. He was watching Tiger closely. With his shaved head and gold earrings, he looked like Michael Jordan’s way older brother. Renfroe told me, “I think the biggest thing for Tiger is between the ears. You’re not going to get that back in one week. Between the ears, that’s where the biggest demons are.” I asked him how he could know such a thing. He smiled and said, “It’s just common sense.”