The battle the 14-time major winner is facing is not on the course. It's inside his head.
Going into the final round of the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods was poised to claim his first PGA Tour win since his humiliating divorce threw his career for a loop in 2009. Just four shots behind jittery Charlie Wi, Woods was in solo third, two shots ahead of final-round playing partner and longtime rival Phil Mickelson. What better way to re-enter the winner's circle than with your nemesis of 10 years watching from across the green? It was a dream scenario.
Instead, Sunday—like so many Sundays recently—turned out to be a nightmare for Tiger. He missed an astonishing five putts inside of five feet, routinely misfired with his iron shots, and stumbled to a final round 75. Mickelson, meanwhile, charged past Tiger and took the lead outright on the sixth hole, finishing with a 64 and a two-shot victory over Wi. Tiger finished tied for 15th.
In the aftermath of Tiger's latest humbling experience on the golf course, both he and the golfing cognoscenti tried to pin his shortfalls on one or more aspects of his golf game. Tiger lamented after the round that he simply couldn't make any putts, a sentiment echoed by San Francisco Chronicle golf writer Rob Kroichick.
Stop us if this sounds familiar, but he needs to hole putts like Old Tiger. He's clearly getting the hang of his reshaped, Sean Foley-taught swing. But Old Tiger doesn't miss a 2-foot, 8-inch putt, as he did Sunday on No. 7. It was almost sad to watch.
But Tiger, Kroichick, and the rest are missing the point. The battle the 14-time major winner is facing is not on the course. It's inside his head.
MORE ON SPORTS
As good as Tiger's golf game has been mechanically over the years, what really set him apart was his mental toughness and almost sociopathic competitiveness. You don't go 14-for-14 when holding the 54-hold lead at a major championship because you can execute an into-the-wind fade better than your competition—you do it because you have the fortitude to beat both the field and the golf course itself.
What drew many people to Tiger, including myself, was his preternatural ability to come through in the clutch every time. When Sergio Garcia hit his off-the-tree-root shot at the 1999 PGA Championship, Tiger drained an eight-footer for par on the 71st hole and won by a stroke. When Bob May had him on the ropes the following year, Tiger nailed a five-footer to force a playoff, then hit a sublime bunker shot to a foot to win the playoff by one. Even when Tiger had only one good leg in the 2008 U.S. Open, he got up and down from 110 yards away to tie Rocco Mediate on the 72nd hole and force a playoff —which, of course, he won.
But in the 27 months since his precipitous fall from grace, Tiger has not won an official golf event. Not one. To illustrate how remarkable that is, in the 27 months from April 2000 through June 2002, Tiger won six majors and had 13 victories in all.
In recent weeks, Tiger's swing—now in its fourth version—has looked crisp, and his putting in the early rounds of tournaments has been solid. But he has looked for all the world like a befuddled 10-handicapper in the final round of events. Two weeks ago in Dubai, he entered the final round tied for the lead with mediocre English journeyman Robert Rock. Old Tiger would had Rock in tears by the fifth hole—New Tiger never put up a fight and faded to third.
"There was a time when Woods's mere arrival on the first tee would have buckled the knees of a man such as Rock," wrote The Guardian afterwards, and the London paper was not wrong.
That was child's play compared to his 75 at Pebble on Sunday. After gakking a makeable birdie putt at the second, Tiger stumbled around the front nine in two-over-par 38, including bogeys at 7, 8, and 9. When he briefly channeled his former self and holed a bunker shot for birdie at the 11th, Mickelson responded with a 30-foot, par-saving putt to stay four ahead of Tiger. Old Tiger would have shrugged it off and made a back-nine charge—New Tiger didn't make another birdie and finished nine shots back.
The former world No. 1's flimsy mental state was most evident in his putting stroke. I can't believe I'm typing this sentence, but it's obvious that Tiger has a Tommy Armour-sized case of the yips. The difference between a talented player and a great player is often the ability to make four-to eight-foot putts in pressure situations. Old Tiger was the best there's ever been at pressure putting, with the possible exception of Jack Nicklaus. New Tiger looks like he'd rather sit through Evita than stand over a five-foot putt.
Perhaps six-time major winner and CBS color commentator Nick Faldo said it best. After Tiger missed yet another short putt on the back nine, the Englishman deadpanned: "Looks like Tony Romo [Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Woods' amateur partner in the event] is the second-best player in the group [with Tiger and Mickelson] right now." To paraphrase: Tony's playing better than Tiger.
Tiger has kept a tight lid on his thoughts throughout his career, so it's impossible to know if he's aware of his now-omnipresent nerves and is trying to deal with them. If not, his friends and the good folks at Nike should hold an intervention and force him to see a sports psychologist, preferably sometime before the Masters tournament in April. Because no matter how much faith Tiger puts in "practice, practice, practice" what he really needs is a few quality mental workouts while lying on a couch.