HAVEN, Wis. — What's next for Tiger Woods?
In the short term, it will be the Wyndham Championship in North Carolina next week. That’s probably the next tournament on his journey, his search. The indication is Woods will be at the Wyndham this coming week, which may be a mistake.
You see, the long-term answer to that question is more complex. And some in the golf community believe playing next week is a step too far for Woods. Fans think he ought to stay away from competition, relax—if that’s even possible after missing the cut in a third straight major—and reflect. Figure out what’s wrong and if anything’s right.
But Tiger has never backed away from anything, unless it was a putt when the gallery was too noisy. He hopes to earn enough points at the Wyndham to qualify for the first wave of tournaments in the FedEx Cup playoffs, leading to the Tour Championship at the end of September. Sitting 279 points out of the final qualifying spot, Woods would essentially need to win and earn the 500 FedEx Cup points that come with it.
And after his performance at Whistling Straits, that scenario is the longest of longshots.
Woods was two strokes above the cut in the 97th PGA Championship. He shot 75-73 for a total of 148. So as at the U.S. Open and British Open, he played only two rounds. What has been arguably his poorest year as a pro has only continued to get worse.
How does he fix it? Can he fix it? Does he try yet another teacher and another swing? Does he merely work on all the changes he’s incorporated and hasn’t perfected yet? Does he acknowledge that with his 40th birthday less than five months away, his game never will be what it once was?
Forget the last question. Woods may concede he can’t hit it as far as the new bombers—Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of that group—but he’ll never allow himself to think he still isn’t among the best, no matter how far down he’s tumbled in the world rankings.
He even sounded a bit satisfied with what, considering the weeks he missed because of back surgery and then the awful start to the year, he sees as progress. He admitted to a lack of consistency but said that having entered only 10 events in 2015, “I’m pleased with the way I’m striking the ball.”
Rick Reilly @ReillyRick
Going to a major to see Tiger Woods on a Saturday is like going to the zoo to see the wooly mammoth. #NewNormal2015-8-15 14:34:58
At this PGA Championship, Woods said his putting befuddled him. Of course, not long ago, his putting was great and his ball striking was the difficulty.
“I just need to get more consistent in tournament golf,” he said after finishing the second round. “The only way you can do that is by playing. I have a lot of golf to be played around the world. The confidence is growing quickly. That’s the fun part. I’m hitting shots I haven’t been able to hit in years.”
Athletes slump and sometimes recover. Tennis legend Andre Agassi dropped to 141st in the rankings and then worked his way back to No. 1. Woods, who only a year-and-a-half ago was No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings, is down in the 200s.
But rare is the golfer who improves when he’s 40 or older. His body isn’t the same. His life isn’t the same. Woods now has a sports bar in Florida. Priorities change.
And while the man himself no doubt envisions a future filled with him sinking birdies and hoisting trophies, it's hard for a subjective public to feel the same way.
Jaime Diaz, the editor of Golf Digest and a longtime Woods biographer, believes we shouldn’t see anything of him for a few months, as if Diaz or anybody else can be an influence.
“What Tiger needs to do is take a break," said Diaz. “He’s putting too much pressure on himself.”
Pressure, in effect, to be the Tiger Woods he used to be—before the fourth knee surgery, before the back surgery, before yet another change in swing coach and before Woods’ tidy and private little world collapsed because of his well-publicized sex scandal.
“I think that’s had a lot to do with his play,” said Diaz. “He hasn’t been the same.”
Not in the majors, at least, which if Woods is being honest, is all that matters to him. Majors inspired Woods. He had 14 by June 2008, only four fewer than the record total of 18 by Jack Nicklaus. Seven years later, Woods is still sitting on that number.
Diaz believes Woods’ true issue is mental. He said Woods can “produce shots of the highest level” when he’s right. The last few years, however, Woods has been unable to produce those shots. Instead, he whacks a ball into the rough or misses a short putt.
What's next for Tiger Woods?
It's a question with no real answers, but many different realistic scenarios. Winning majors again seems as unlikely as a sudden retirement announcement. Returning to consistently competing for wins is as likely as him continuing to trudge his way through mediocrity, grasping for the cut line week after week.
After the historic rise to greatness and the equally unprecedented plunge to mediocrity, we can't predict how it'll go.
“It’s frustrating when you miss cuts because any time you miss a cut, you don’t have a chance to win,” said Woods.
If only the mystery of his game could be understood that clearly.
Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.