Sunday at Muirfield became the latest in a five-year string of major disappointments for Tiger Woods.
While others waxed poetic Sunday about claret jugs and spoke in hushed tones of the windswept Scottish countryside's beauty, I was thinking about Tom Keifer and Cinderella.
No, really...that Cinderella.
It’d been nearly every moment of 25 years since I heard the signature power ballad from their second album released midway through the summer of 1988, but it seemed no less familiar to me as I watched the final round of the British Open unfold via ESPN on my office television.
“Don't know what you got, till it's gone.”
If you haven’t pegged it already, I’ll make the confession. I’m not the world’s premier golf fan. My exposure to the game as a child was usually under duress, as my father occasionally watched the final 36 holes of whatever PGA Tour stop happened to be on TV that weekend—or religiously tuned in to see the final two rounds of whatever of the four majors the calendar indicated as appropriate.
All in all, it was a pretty good time to be a hostage.
I saw Tom Watson win the British. I saw Lee Trevino win the PGA. I saw Raymond Floyd win the U.S. Open. And I was there in the living room in 1986—a few weeks past my 17th birthday—when Jack Nicklaus and Augusta brought my old man as close to tears as I’d ever seen him over a sporting event.
It gave me an appreciation for the game, if not a love for it, and I remembered that particular weekend fondly as years went by, each time I grabbed hold of my own remote control in my own living room and dialed up the very same Sunday fare that I used to consider torture.
Lucky for me, it was just in time, too.
Because by the time I was settled enough to start paying attention, I got to see Babe Ruth play.
OK, he was taller, thinner and slightly more ethnically diverse than the former Yankees slugger; but the version of Tiger Woods I got to watch was nonetheless as dominant on a golf course as anyone had been in any sporting venue since ol’ George Herman hung it up in 1935.
He won the Masters by 12 shots at age 21. He won the U.S. Open by 15 shots three years later. He won the PGA four times in an eight-year stretch. And, in spite of being one of the tour’s longest hitters off the tee, he won the British Open after using his driver one time in four rounds.
“When Tiger was at his best, he was the best player, and, more importantly, everybody else knew he was the best player,” said Rick Woelfel, golf writer for the Calkins Media Group in suburban Philadelphia. “In the Nicklaus era, there were others, first Arnold Palmer, then Lee Trevino, then Tom Watson, who challenged him; but Woods really was head and shoulders above his peers, even Phil.”
Back then, when he was the reigning champion at each of the four majors, they called it the “Tiger Slam.” It was the golfing version of 60 homers in a year, or 714 in a career, and, by the time he reached 14 major titles—four short of Nicklaus’ milestone 18—it seemed it’d go on forever.
“Don't know what it is, I did so wrong.”
Of course, unless you’ve been camping in the broom closet of a Russian airport for the last five years, you know all about what’s happened since. Chronic injuries. Persistent swing issues. And a TMZ report or two about a long trail of attractive women—none of whom was actually his supermodel wife.
The off-course chaos has had its on-course consequences.
Not only has the game’s most automatic player not won a major tournament in a month past half a decade, but the between-the-ears intimidation factor that was once such an integral part of his approach has seemingly gone the way of David Duval as well.
Oh sure, he can still crank it up for the Cadillac Championship or the Farmers Insurance Open from time to time—as a $1.5 million edge over spot No. 2 on the tour money list attests—but the red-shirt-on-Sunday routine is as much a majors relic as a mashie and a niblick.
The flaccid residue of Woods’ aura was on full display at Muirfield on Sunday morning, when, in spite of a leaderboard ripe for early pickings, he was unable to manage anything beyond off-the-tee frustration as would-be birdies devolved into scrambling pars.
Will Tiger Woods equal Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories?
“The mystique has been gone for some time,” Woelfel said. “He still has his physical talents, but his mental edge is gone. I think he'll win another major, maybe two. Five (the number needed to break Nicklaus’ record)? No way.”
It wasn’t long before the two-shot gap widened to five. And by the end of the day, it was another last-round 74 and another major win for another of the pretenders—this time, Phil Mickelson—who’d been just another member of the I-wish-I-was-Tiger masses a few years back.
Not only is “Lefty” five years older and nine majors shy of the torrid pace Woods left in 2008, but three of the five big ones he has managed to land have only come since Tiger abdicated.
He's a nice guy with a spotless past. But in terms of all-time stature, there’s really no comparison. Unless the master regains his mojo, though, imitation may be all the next generation's got.
“And it ain't easy to get back, takes so long.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.