Ten years ago, Tiger Woods jetted into Dubai for the first time. He was World No. 1 and just two months away from winning the Masters to complete his Tiger Slam and own all four majors at the same time.
Now Woods is 35 years old, a divorced father of two and on the back nine of his career. He hasn’t won a tournament in 15 months and has slipped to No. 3 in the world rankings. Yet “he is still Tiger Woods,” as Rory McIlroy said in Dubai. As such, Woods is still the only player to command a standing-room-only press conference lit up by a constant explosion of photographers’ flash bulbs at the Emirates Golf Club, where he looked and sounded relaxed.
“I feel good, I feel happy,” Woods said. “And certainly balanced. And that’s a good thing.”
His road to recovery on and off the course is “progressing,” Woods said as his miserable 2010 recedes in his rearview mirror. He said he has found a balance between work and his private life.
“I don’t practice as much as I used to, but that’s a good thing,” Woods said. “I am able to spend more quality time with my kids and that’s more important than what I do on the golf course.”
His scandals are truly yesterday’s news. These days Woods is more often asked questions about how it feels to be struggling with his game.
“People forget I went from ’97 to ’99 with only one win,” Woods said. It takes time to change, especially a change in philosophy, which I’ve done on two other occasions [with Butch Harmon and Hank Haney]. Now this is my third [with Sean Foley]. It’s not like I have not been here before. I feel like I can still win tournaments.
“I’m not that old,” he added, laughing. “I figure I’ve still got some years ahead of me.”
The trouble for Woods is that the Tiger Generation of 20-year-olds inspired by his exploits in the late 1990s and early 2000s is now beginning to break through and make its mark on the Tour. Woods is in danger of being swallowed up by the very players who hero-worshipped him on television.
And none of the Tiger Generation carries any battle scars because none of them has had their careers crushed during Woods’ dominating era. Martin Kaymer has already overtaken Woods in the world rankings and Rory McIlroy is hot on his heels at World No. 7.
McIlroy was a self-confessed Tiger geek growing up in Northern Ireland. He still is, and he was excited about the Big Three pairing of No. 3-ranked Woods, No. 2-ranked Kaymer and No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood that tees off just after High Noon at 12.20 p.m. local time Thursday.
“I’m quite happy that I’m on the other side of the draw so I can watch a bit of it on TV, just as a fan,” McIlroy said.
But being a fan does not mean McIlroy is in awe of Woods. The Northern Irishman was an unofficial spokesman for his generation when he explained why Woods has no intimidation factor over the younger players on Tour.
“I never played in tournaments when he was dominating so I never really felt that aura,” McIlroy said. “When I speak to him or play with him, he’s just Tiger. I don’t really feel like there’s any special presence about him. He’s just one of the guys.”
Woods recognized the changing times Wednesday when he name-checked Europe’s Big Five who dominated the game before he came along to re-write the record books. That’s what’s happening now with young players like McIlroy, Kaymer, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa.
“You had Faldo, Lyle, Langer, Woosie and Seve for a number of years,” Woods said. “Then there was a period when the new guys had not come up yet. This is the next generation. As we all know, it’s cyclical.”
It is safe to assume that Woods will win many more tournaments, but his days of dominance are history. As each year passes, he will have to face the inevitability of his career heading in an unfamiliar direction. But, like all champions, Woods is a fighter and he’s not yet ready to embrace the prospect of life in an easy chair with his pipe and slippers. Slipping back into the pack is not an option for him.
“Well, if I win the same four tournaments every year and four big ones, I think I’ll be all right,” Woods said, smiling.
Of course, such results used to be expected from Woods. The talk used to be of “when” Woods would pass Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 majors. Now that is only an “if.”
Woods clearly still has confidence that he can regain his place at the summit of the game. However, McIlroy is not convinced that Woods will ever dominate the way he once did.
“I think if he swung the way he did in 2000, yeah, definitely,” McIlroy said. “But with the injury that he’s had, it’s very difficult for him to do that now. He’s working hard with Sean Foley and if that clicks into place, I’m sure he’ll start winning a lot of tournaments again. Maybe six months or a year down the line, he’ll start to play very well again. But I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate the way he did back in the early 2000s.”
The passage of time and the shame of a sex scandal has demystified and humanized one of the game’s greatest icons. What will he do if he completes a second consecutive season without a victory? It will be a fascinating journey to follow as the 2011 season unfolds.
“He’s still Tiger Woods,” McIlroy said. “He has not played badly but he’s just played like a normal professional golfer.”
Tiger Woods is a normal golfer? It’s official: we’ve reached the end of an aura.