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.
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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.