Since the Hydrant Incident and the unraveling of Tiger Woods’ secret life, golf enthusiasts have wondered if the wizard-like golfing genius they had come to know was gone forever. Here, a couple of years later, people still wonder if and when Tiger will return to dominance. The questions come at a rapid rate:
“Have the knee surgeries (and the history of knee-related injuries) taken more of a toll than we think?”
“Is the stress of having a public persona too much on Tiger?”
“Is Mr. Woods serious about changing his priorities? Is golf now lower on the totem pole?”
“What if 'the field' has caught up to Tiger?”
There is a lot of validity to each of these questions. To a degree, it’s likely that each of these issues has had a toll on Woods’ career. Still, people who actually go out on a regular basis and play golf know a truth about the sport that might be more powerful than any of those forces.
Golf is hard. Really, really hard. Go to a local course and try it if you don’t think so.
Everything about golf is difficult. The ball is tiny. The hole isn’t much bigger than the ball. If a person changes anything at all in their swing, they have to then figure out how far every single one of their clubs is capable of hitting a golf ball with the new swing. The “better” a course is, the more difficult that course typically tends to be, and professionals play at many of the most difficult courses that exist.
This week, the US Open begins, and the US Open is notorious for maximizing the level of difficulty.
Golf is such a difficult sport that many people who play it for a hobby spend most of their time on the course frustrated and angry. Many of the same people who act as though Woods’ recent etiquette on the course is an affront to golf itself throw more clubs, more swear words and more fits in one year than Tiger has in his life.
If one chooses to play golf competitively, every round gives them three difficult opponents: the course itself, the other golfers in the competition and their own history on a golf course. “Good luck with that” doesn’t really begin to describe it.
Phil Mickelson is one of the best members of that field that Woods has always been contrasted against. Mickelson is creative on the golf course, and his more outgoing personality has had an easy time winning over fans in every gallery. It took Mickelson a very long time to win a major, and not because there was anything wrong with his game.
Mickelson didn’t play a dramatically different style of golf in 2001 than he does today, but in 2001 he wasn’t mentioned with some of the sport’s legends the way he occasionally is today. He had come close more than once, and would come close again afterward, only to miss a critical shot at a critical moment.
At the time, people wondered if this was Mickelson’s kryptonite; he couldn’t perform in the big moments.
Or, maybe golf is just that hard. Somebody can put together seventy fantastic holes and have one or two errant strokes undo all of it. That’s the rule, and not the exception.
Golfers who also watch golf on TV remember who lost a tournament almost as often as they remember who won. The 2009 British Open is remembered more for Tom Watson’s performance finishing second than Stewart Cink’s hard-earned win, because millions of people have missed a putt like the putt that Watson missed on his 72nd hole.
Speaking of the Open Championship, Greg Norman actually won that one in the past. Norman was not just a great golfer, but the kind of personality the sport always needs to keep itself on the sports forefront despite a lack of the kind of “action” that can be found in other popular sports.
So what’s the first thing people think of when they hear that name? Some people might think of Norman as a brand, as his shark logo appears on clothing and wine bottles, and others may think of a celebrity athlete hanging out with President Clinton, both of them symbols of their era in a way.
Golfers hear the name “Greg Norman” and picture a man unraveling on Sunday at Augusta National. Before they think of his tremendous success on golf courses, they think of a time when Norman lost a major tournament in a painful way. Golf’s hard.
“Golf may be hard, but this is Tiger! It was never hard for Tiger!" While it might have looked that way, and while every non-golfer in the world seems to think they could have been Tiger Woods circa 2000 if they put the work in, what Tiger did in his prime was supremely difficult. For evidence of this, check out how many people have run away with any tournament the way that Woods did the 2000 US Open.
None of this is to say that Woods cannot break Jack Nicklaus’ major tournament record, but the point is that Tiger’s “fall back to the pack” might not have a complicated explanation that involves Thanksgiving and divorce proceedings. The run that Woods had through the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines was amazing, but that run could not continue forever.
Consider how many swing coaches, swings and equipment changes Tiger went through during that 11-year run of major after major. Consider that the aforementioned Mickelson started hitting the amazing shots that win majors where he once hit the tough shots that cost majors. Consider that Rory McIlroy and the generation of golfers who came in with him are hitting their strides and could be getting ready for their own runs of brilliance.
This suggests that there may not be an easy fix. The person we see now may just be the same Tiger Woods who won the thrilling playoff over Rocco Mediate in 2008. What happened? Golf did. It is not as though Woods has not been in contention at majors since then. Just last year he had a lead on Sunday at the Masters, even if that lead was fleeting.
Tiger can still be great—scratch that—is still great at golf. How many members of “the field” finish in the top 10 at a major and have to answer questions about their putting issues or what they did wrong? How many golfers can continue to compete at tournaments and majors despite clear issues in their game, period? Woods has finished in the top five of three of the last nine majors while he and everybody else agree that his game is not completely there.
That last part might be a consensus, but it also might not be true. This may be Tiger’s game now. Putting might be hard for Woods simply because putting is hard for everybody who has ever tried it.
What’s wrong with Tiger? Perhaps he’s just playing a sport that can seem close to impossible. It could be that the game gets everybody sooner or later, from Jack to every duffer on the local municipal course, and lately it’s just been Woods’ turn to see a side of the sport with which everybody else is intimately familiar.