SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — The great thing about tournament golf is that every week, it begins all over again. It’s like the reset button on a video game. The aliens killed you again? Click. Reset. New game.
Tiger Woods played his worst pro tournament ever at Firestone last week? Click. Reset. New game.
Woods looked reset Tuesday when he met with the media. He wore a goatee last week during the Bridgestone Invitational and on Monday during his practice round. On Tuesday, he was clean shaven and shining like a new dime. He exuded energy. He smiled. He cracked a few small jokes. Last week’s debacle was last week’s news. The best players are good at forgetting bad shots, bad weeks, bad things.
No one has more baggage to forget than Tiger, and he dutifully trotted out all the right clichÃ©s as he tried to answer questions without giving away anything truly personal or insightful.
The goatee? He didn’t have any clippers last week, he said, and was too lazy to shave. This week, he simply decided to get rid of it. If there was more to that story, Tiger wasn’t going to admit it.
He was asked if he was hurt by his embarrassing performance at Firestone. “Hurt is the wrong word,” he said. “Frustrated, yes. Certainly frustrated in the way I hit the ball, the way I putted. I didn’t do a whole lot positively around the course. But I’ve done some good work the last two days, and hopefully I’ll be ready Thursday.”
That’s Tiger the golfer talking, the eternal optimist, a necessary skill for a gifted player. It’s definitely a necessary skill for Woods, because anything he says that’s out of the ordinary, or any problem he points out, is going to be a 48-point headline the next day, and he knows it. If he admits to being in a slump, that soundbite will run non-stop and be in headlines around the world. So he knows how to soft-pedal things, how to downplay and even deny problems if that’s what it takes.
The hot new rumor Tuesday was that Woods may be working with golf instructor Sean Foley, who has helped Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan and several other tour players. If Tiger says he’s going to make Foley his new Hank Haney, it’s headline news. So Tiger tried to deflate that story when asked about talking with Foley during his Tuesday morning practice round at Whistling Straits.
“I wasn’t doing anything with him (Foley) today,” Woods said. “He was watching Hunter and Sean. I did ask him to film a couple swings. I would like to take a look at it, which I did, so I’m heading in the right direction.”
Woods wasn’t able to douse the fire, however, and he poured a little fuel on it when he was told that Foley said it was possible they would work together.
“Certainly it’s a possibility, no doubt,” Woods said. “But there are a lot of other coaches out there that I’ve talked to who are possibilities as well. I just wanted him to have a look at it today on video so I could take a look, and that’s what we did.”
The main thing to learn from the exchange is that Tiger is, indeed, looking for help. After his performance in Akron, it was evident that he had lost his game as well as his focus and intensity. Maybe those things go hand in hand. If you’re playing rubbish and you know it, maybe it’s not much fun to go to work. Especially when your office has thick rough, narrow fairways and lots of trees.
Tiger says his life is starting to normalize: no more helicopters flying over the Isleworth range, no more paparazzi following his and his family’s every move. His golf hasn’t started to normalize yet. The phrase “rock bottom” was heard a few times last week in Akron.
“To be honest, I thought I would have been here a little bit sooner with all that’s going on,” Woods said. “But somehow I’ve been able to play a little bit better than I thought for a stretch. And then it finally caught up with me last week.”
When asked to explain what he meant by “here,” Woods said, “Playing this poorly. I’ve been able to piece together rounds and keep it in there. There were two tournaments where I really hit it well, but other than that, I haven’t done that well.
“Even at the U.S. Open, I played nine good holes and you need to play a bit more consistent than that … I’ve been as patient as I possibly could have been. I’ve fought hard and last week, I didn’t have anything. I hit it terrible. I putted bad. I just didn’t do anything right.”
It is easy to overreact to Tiger’s play last week and forget that he finished fourth in the Masters and the U.S. Open. Some players would consider that a pretty good year. For him, they were revealing rounds because even though he played his way into semi-contention, once there he didn’t have his usual finishing kick.
The scene on the 14th green at Augusta sticks in the mind. After a missed putt, he carelessly missed the second short putt. He knew he wasn’t going to win the Masters, and he let up. That was a rare thing for him to do until this year. You saw something similar at Quail Hollow, where his mind clearly wasn’t on his game, and again last week in Akron, when he knew, as he said, that he had nothing.
Where is Tiger Woods’s game right now? Only he knows. All we can do is watch him play and wait and wonder. A win this week would erase an entire year of frustration and hurt. It would be an incredible comeback story, It would give golf a jolt of excitement and breathe sudden life into the Ryder Cup. (Woods said Tuesday that he would accept a captain’s pick if one were offered.) It would put Tiger’s golfing legacy back in the spotlight.
It’s too much to expect, too much to ask. Woods surely knows that. We can only take him at his word when he says, “The whole idea is to keep progressing, keep moving forward. And this is a new week.”
Tiger tees off Thursday morning at 8:20 (9:20 ET) in the PGA Championship, the year’s final major.
Click. Reset. New game.