Tiger Woods has struggled to keep his mind right and his body healthy since he last won a major championship in 2008. The effects of his losing streak have seeped into other areas of his game, keeping his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus stuck in neutral.
With his most recent setback Sunday in the 2013 British Open, Woods has now gone 17 starts without a major victory. He remains stuck on 14 career major wins, five shy of passing Nicklaus’ record of 18 major career titles.
In the five years he’s gone without a major breakthrough, he’s endured off-the-course scandals, a very public divorce and professional breakups with his longtime caddie and swing coach. At the same time, Woods has had significant injuries that have taken a toll on his body and cost him a number of starts in major championships since 2008.
What problem is most holding Woods back from winning a major?
As Tiger has battled through mind and body issues, transitioned through yet another swing change and worked to find normalcy in his personal life, other facets of his game in majors have struggled to come around, making his task to win a 15th major increasingly difficult.
That Woods has managed to still contend in the majors despite all the challenges he’s faced is a testament to how great he really is.
Yet to truly regain his once-dominant form in golf’s toughest tests, he needs his body and mind to get right. When that happens, it’s a good bet the rest will follow.
There’s no question Tiger has had a lot to deal with off the course, and it’s only human that personal issues and his determination to chase down Nicklaus in the record books have been an issue in majors since 2010 and beyond.
The changes in Tiger’s life, which included a very public divorce, took most of 2010 to sort out and certainly affected his ability to compete in majors at 100 percent, at least through 2011. Before and after that, Woods has felt the increasing pressure to win majors and has seen his once-intimidating nature on the course erode.
The cracks began to show at the 2009 PGA Championship when Woods lost a 56-hole lead for the first time ever in a major—and to Y.E. Yang of all people.
As his shortfalls have added up, competitors no longer fear Tiger when he is in contention. Sure, they respect him, but they have seen him fall prey to the same pressures and mental battles everyone else has since 2008.
At the same time, Woods has struggled to keep his composure when things have gone wrong in majors.
At the 2013 Masters, Woods was so shaken by his wedge shot hitting the flag and going back into the water on the 15th hole on Friday that he executed a bad drop and nearly got disqualified from the event. He ultimately took a two-shot penalty and never recovered from the incident.
On Saturday at Muirfield, Woods made a mistake by going for the green in two on the 17th hole and consequently leaving his second shot in a cross bunker. He couldn't recover as he used to and made bogey, losing two shots to Westwood at the time.
His mental fatigue seemed to grow on Sunday, and his patience waned as he got off to a terrible start with three bogeys in the first six holes and was never able to right the ship.
Some in the sport are even talking about his mental approach to the game, including CBS golf commentator and six-time major winner Nick Faldo.
"I think Tiger's woken up and realized this is a hard sport and he is a mere mortal after all," Faldo told the Daily Mail following the 2013 U.S. Open. "He's not in a good mental place."
That much is evident.
Just as Woods has battled the mental demons of the game, he’s also had to fight through physical issues.
Following his victory at Torrey Pines in 2008, Tiger had to sit out the final two majors of the year after ACL reconstruction. In 2011, a painful Achilles tendon and an MCL tear kept him out of the U.S. Open and the British Open.
At the 2013 U.S. Open, Woods played with a strained elbow he injured at the Players Championship a month prior. The effects were obvious as he finished at 13 over. In fact, Woods had to take a month off after playing at Merion Golf Club, meaning his Muirfield start was the first since the U.S. Open.
A golfer can’t endure these types of physical problems without it seeping into his mechanics and his mental approach. Majors are grueling, and if health concerns are present, immediate or in the back of the mind, they will be felt.
With the pressure building to win majors again and his body fighting off nagging injuries, the toll is certainly showing with the flat stick.
As Tiger has worked through his recent swing changes, he has struggled with his mid-range iron game. The problem has been exacerbated throughout Woods’ three major starts this year, including this week at Muirfield.
On Friday at Muirfield, Tiger struggled mightily with distance control, often carrying his approaches too far into the greens and then watching as they rolled off into the rough.
On Saturday and Sunday, as the fast conditions on the greens slowed, Woods was leaving his approaches far too short on many greens. Poor results followed.
Woods has been much more consistent off the tee (Sunday’s final round at the British Open notwithstanding) in large part because he's opted to shelve his terrible driver. Despite that, he’s failed to translate more opportunities from the fairways into valuable birdies in major championships.
That poor execution has increased the strain on all the aspects of Tiger’s game under already pressure-filled situations.
Scoring opportunities haven’t come as easily, and in many instances, Woods has watched as other talented golfers have run past him, just as Phil Mickelson did Sunday at Muirfield.
With the pressure building to win majors again and his body fighting off nagging injuries, the toll on Tiger is certainly showing on the greens. The inconsistency of the iron play isn't helping matters either.
Lee Westwood is putting like Old Tiger. Tiger Woods is putting like Young Westwood.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 21, 2013
Earlier this year, Tiger was putting the ball beautifully in PGA Tour events. Yet in the majors, the putter has by and large let Woods down, just as it did on Saturday and Sunday at Muirfield. Throughout the weekend, Tiger complained that he couldn't figure out the speed on the greens and that they slowed as the tournament moved on.
Whether he meant it that way or not, it came across as an excuse for poor execution. As Tiger noted in a press conference after Sunday's round, courtesy of ESPN:
It was frustrating. I played well. I could just never get the speed (of the greens) right today. We started on the first day, and it progressively got slower. And that's usually the opposite at most tournaments. It usually gets faster as the week goes on, but this week was different. And today I had a couple of opportunities to make a couple of putts and I left them short.
Putting is perhaps the most mental part of the game, as a golfer must see the line, trust his view and go through the mechanical elements of a sound putt each and every time he takes the club back.
Things often go wrong for the world's best players on the greens, and it’s been no different for Woods.
On Sunday, Woods opened with a three-putt on the first hole and followed with another on the par-three fourth hole. On several occasions, he needed lengthy but makeable putts to drop, only to see them go wanting.
The same thing happened to Woods at the U.S. Open last month, where it took him 128 putts to get around in 13 over par. That’s an average of 32 putts a round and a clear culprit as to why he had the worst major of his professional career at Merion Golf Club.
At 37 years old, there’s no denying Woods has to work harder than before to keep his focus on the greens. Therefore, the mechanics of his motion are more important than ever before.
Tiger Woods' last 6 majors: 1st and 2nd round: -11 (7 rounds under par) 3rd and 4th round: +23 (8 rounds over par)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 21, 2013
So with his mind cluttered, his body possibly worn and the stress to score mounting, it’s not a shock Woods has struggled on the weekend of majors the past several years.
In the face of a stern Muirfield test, Tiger was two under through the first two rounds of the British Open. In the final 36 holes, he was four over. The drop in his play over the weekend cost him a chance to win his fourth claret jug and has been a major issue for quite some time.
From 2005 through 2011, a period in which Woods won six major championships, he was a combined 60 under on the weekend in majors, per Golf.com. In the past two seasons, Tiger is a combined 23 over on the weekend, or 83 shots worse.
At the 2012 U.S. Open, Woods held a share of the 36-hole lead at one under. He finished the tournament in a tie for 21st at seven over.
In the 2012 PGA Championship, the same story unfolded. Tiger shot four under to tie the midway lead, but he finished in a tie for 11th at two under.
The list of weekend issues goes on, but the point is, Tiger has faded or gotten stuck in neutral when majors are won, and that was not his style when he was at his best and winning majors.
Yes, he is playing well early, and that’s good—but Tiger measures success in major victories, and we can see where that arithmetic would take him right now.
The bottom line of all this is that no one is more scrutinized and watched in major championships than Tiger. Every misstep and lost opportunity is analyzed, categorized and recycled. It’s the nature of the beast for the game’s best player and history’s second-most prolific major championship winner.
However, it isn't easy. It can take a mental and physical toll to want something so badly but struggle to get the body to follow the mind. When the mind is clouded with external pressures, it can get even tougher.
If Tiger can finally find some long-term health for his battered frame and some peace for his busy mind, he’ll fix the on-course issues that ail him.
He’ll putt better and finish stronger. He’ll trust his swing more and find birdie opportunities easier to come by.
When, and if, that happens, Woods will win majors again. Until then, however, the road to Nicklaus will remain bumpy.