Despite being number one in the world, despite winning five PGA events last year and despite remaining the most famous and noteworthy player in his sport, Tiger Woods still has not made any headway towards his most valued goal, that of beating Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.
That goal remains Tiger’s Everest, and as things stand, there exist some very real obstacles blocking his climb towards that 15th major, a feat that has eluded him for five long years.
Last year must have felt like a bad country western song to Tiger: “When Did Winning Feel So Bad!?”
He won more than anyone else on the tour, but he could not grab one major title and that must have hurt like a shank from 100 yards away.
Standing in his way are glitches in his game and a rising tide of young, Tiger-wannabes. While he has shown that he can still win on the tour, the WGC–Bridgestone will never be the Masters.
What’s up with Tiger is hard to say, but he has become vulnerable in recent times.
"He was just so much better than everybody and so much better under pressure and so much better on Sundays and so much better in the majors it was not a fair fight," Johnny Miller said in a teleconference reported by SBNation. "Now it's a fair fight."
Despite having what would have been a career year for any other player, Tiger’s performances in the majors were disappointing. He tied for fourth at the Masters, finished 32nd at the U.S. Open, sixth at the Open Championship and tied for 40th at the PGA Championship.
Will this be the year that he finally breaks through and wins his 15th major? It is hard to tell and there are some very key obstacles he must confront before he does so.
Tiger is the world’s greatest frontrunner. Or at least, he once was. All 14 of his major titles have come when he had a lead on Sunday.
But, in recent majors where it seemed like he was in control, where he had set himself up with two solid rounds, he couldn’t close the deal.
Take the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, for example. Woods shot rounds of 69 and 70 that placed him in Saturday’s final group. Yet, he was unable to capitalize on his position with weekend rounds of 75 and 73 that dropped him down to a tie for 21st place, six shots back of champion Webb Simpson.
The 2012 British Open and the 2012 PGA Championship were no different. Then, at last year’s Masters, Woods seemed poised to strike when his ball hit the flagstick at the 15th, resulting in a two-shot penalty. From then on, he was toast.
He did win the 2013 Players Championship in traditional Tiger fashion, shooting four rounds under par and winning by two strokes over the next player. While we held our collective breaths over the weekend, Tiger did what he couldn’t do in a major.
If Tiger is to win his 15th major this year, he will need to regain that kind of full-tournament consistency and toughness which once made him the most intimidating player on the planet.
Thirty-eight is not that old. It isn’t even middle age.
In some ways, age could work in Tiger’s favor. He is wiser than most of the field, and with wisdom comes power. Right?
Tiger better hope so because history, as much as age, may be against him.
Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead are the only golfers to win five majors after the age of 35. One of Jack’s was the miracle at the Masters in 1986 at age 46.
With each passing day, the margin of error dwindles. Miss a fairway, a putt, a cut and that is one less chance at winning. The noose tightens.
Tiger still has eight chances to win five before he turns 40. So, we are looking way beyond that for him to pass Nicklaus. He may be 50 if, and when, he surpasses him.
Tiger was once among the youngest players to win a major (he was the youngest to win the Masters at age 21 in 1997) and now may be looking at being the oldest.
Tiger’s physical travails bring to mind Kobe Bryant, who, at 35 years old, is hoping to come back to his NBA championship form after a series of injuries.
Like Kobe, Tiger is the consummate winner. Right now, Tiger is injury-free. He looks bigger and stronger than he has in many years.
A workout fiend, Tiger may be able to defy injury by increasing his strength and flexibility.
While not necessarily injury prone, he has had his share of problems, including knee surgeries in 2008 and his elbow injury last year.
The elbow problem led to a poor showing at the U.S. Open, and while he played well at the Open Championship, he was surpassed by the irrepressible Phil Mickelson.
As the year went by, he was able to regain his form and win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. This was undoubtedly a positive sign for Tiger and his ability to recuperate, but even the smallest injury could produce a setback that he cannot afford.
Last year’s Masters winner Adam Scott and this year’s WGC-Match Play champ Jason Day are primed for more success.
They stand directly in Tiger’s path.
The 33-year-old Scott, who straightened out his putting stroke with the belly putter, has risen to second in the world behind Tiger. Emboldened by his recent success, he is not worried about Tiger and is focused on winning another major.
"My priority is the Masters and the other three majors. It's always a balancing act. The last couple of years I've balanced it really well," he told The Guardian recently.
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Day is rising fast and furiously. In the last three years, he has one of the best records in majors, including a tie for second at the 2011 Masters, a second place finish at the 2011 U.S. Open, a tie for second at the 2013 U.S. Open and a tie for eighth at the PGA Championship last year.
Both men have emerged from Down Under to give Tiger something to worry about.
Tiger likes his greens fast like his cars. Well, we don’t know that he likes fast cars and car jokes may not be in the best taste when it comes to Tiger.
Still, he seems to love the slick Augusta greens of the Masters and the simple fact is that when he is putting well, he wins. Last year he ranked 22nd in strokes gained—putting. But it took some work.
Great putting can cure all ills, as illustrated by Tiger’s performance at Doral last year when he won the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
His success came after some choice words from friend and putting guru Steve Stricker, who realigned Tiger and, subsequently, his putting stroke.
Then at Bay Hill he shot a 69, despite errant play off the tee. “I didn’t drive it well, didn’t hit my irons well and didn’t control my distances well or my trajectory,” he told the Golf Channel, even after a bumpy 69 that kept him close to the leaders. But he did putt well and won there, too.
A lot has been made of Tiger’s errant play off the tee. He ranked somewhat blandly in driving accuracy last year in 69th place. But he was third in birdie average and second in scoring.
That’s the thing about Tiger. He may not be hitting on all cylinders, yet he can still win or score well.
Once he was the longest and straightest off the tee. Now he is back in the pack, as most top players can drive it well over 300 yards routinely and in the fairway.
Imagine if he can pull it all together at Augusta or Pinehurst, where the U.S. Open will be played this year.
It will be one less obstacle to conquer.
As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, Tiger is looking in the rear-view mirror at a bunch of rising stars hot on his tail.
Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Harris English and Chris Kirk.
Harris is ranked third in FedEx Cup points and Kirk fifth. Spieth is ranked 12th in the world and Reed has already won twice on the tour.
These are just a few of the 20-somethings looking to usurp Tiger. Weaned on his swing and his winning attitude, these young guns seem immune to Tiger’s once intimidating power.
They play fearlessly. They drive the ball far. They make the putts. They win.
And they are right in Tiger’s path to glory.
The most noteworthy is 20-year-old Rookie of the Year Spieth, who appears atop every leaderboard and who is primed for major success. The youngster routed Tiger in the first round of Torrey Pines and possesses both the talent and the competitive spirit to win a major.