Much has been made of the comparison between the two most consistently dominant athletes in individual sports: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. From their major championship victories and completions of the career slam, to their almost vice-like grips on the number one ranking in the sport, the similarities are almost endless.
This past week, both Woods and Federer played noteworthy tournaments. Federer returned to competitive action after this birth of his twin daughters in Montreal at the Rogers Cup. Although Federer was ousted in the quarters, the tournament was always going to be an exercise in returning to fitness and form for the world's No. 1. Federer has one more tournament in Cincinnati before he attempts to extend his record with a sixth straight US Open title.
Woods on the other hand approached the year's final major, the PGA Championship, as he had with all the other majors this year, on a roll. Woods won the both the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational in the run up to "glory's last shot." Even with victories in the final tune-up event for each major, Woods left each tournament without the trophy, even missing the cut at the British Open.
Initially, Hazeltine looked like it would be smooth sailing for Woods as he had the lead after a great first round. After extending the lead in his second round, Woods played a cautious third round and saw his lead slip to two strokes ahead of Korean Y. E Yang. With Tiger's incredible record of winning every major in which he led heading into Sunday, the final round seemed like an afterthought. But it wasn't; not by a long shot.
Woods' game was distinctly average, barely missing a half dozen make-able putts. He held on to the lead until finally the unflappable Yang seized has chance and powered ahead to win by three strokes. The incredible major leading streak was snapped, and Tiger left Hazeltine without a single major victory in 2009.
Tiger's season has hardly been a disaster. With five victories on the year, Woods still leads the money list and placed in the top 10 in three of the four majors. This coming on the heels of major reconstructive surgery on his knee would be a stunning return for everyone not named Eldrick Woods.
The situation Tiger Woods found himself in before arriving at Hazeltine is very similar to the one that faced Federer a year ago. Federer too had failed to win a major heading in to the final one of the season, the US Open. Federer's losses however were far more pronounced. He was taken out in the semifinals by Novak Djokovic at the Australian, demolished by Rafael Nadal at the French and lost out to Nadal in arguably the greatest match of all time at Wimbledon.
Federer also had his problems with health that year. After the Australian Open Federer revealed that he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. In his following tournament, Federer was eliminated in the first round and didn't seem to recover until the grass court season began. And even then, Federer's dominance on grass was finally ended, and people began to wonder, had Federer finally worn down?
Having lost the No. 1 ranking to Nadal, Federer's last chance in 2008 came at the tournament he had owned over the past few seasons. Having only won two tournaments that year, Federer entered as the underdog. However, unlike Woods, Federer took advantage of the opportunity and went on to soundly defeat Andy Murray in the finals to claim the title. Federer proved that although his best days may be over, he still has a lot left in the tank.
Federer's 2008 and Woods' 2009 marked rehabilitation years for both legends. Federer's came with the most painful losses he has ever faced. Tiger's PGA loss was arguably the worst of his career, and coupled with his poor performance at the British, makes this his worst year since his transition years in 2003-2004. Both struggled to find their games at times and could not find the consistency they desired.
Federer of course came back to form in 2009, finally conquering Roland Garros and beating Pete Sampras's record for most grand slam wins at Wimbledon. A win at the US Open would make this one of the greatest seasons ever. However, he has been fortunate to avoid facing any player with a winning record against him; something that will not happen at the US Open.
Tiger's problem meanwhile will not be the quality of opponents that he will come up against. His quest for 2010 is to regain the consistency that has been a hallmark of his dominant years. That in combination with more experience using his more health-conscious swing will make for a successful Tiger.
No one will argue that Tiger has no more majors left in him. The very thought is almost unthinkable. The point remains the Tiger was very much in contention in three of the majors this year, and the PGA was his to lose. Like Federer in Wimbledon 2008, for the first time, Tiger Woods finally did. Only time will tell if he can summon the will power to respond to an off year like his good buddy Roger.