HAVEN, Wis. – He’s never looked weaker, not when limping around Torrey Pines or even while holding ersatz news conferences as his personal life imploded.
Tiger Woods walked off the course at Whistling Straits on Tuesday looking like a hacker thinking about buying one of those late-night-infomercial gadgets. Maybe the Swing Jacket would help, or a laser pointer attached to his grip, or a rabbit’s foot to replace his tiger head cover.
Less than a year after the events that turned his personal life into something between a Greek tragedy and a Comedy Central punch line, Woods finds himself at his professional nadir.
Sunday, he finished the most execrable tournament of his career, then flew to the toilet capital of America, Kohler, Wis., to participate in the PGA Championship.
He’s close to culminating his first winless year on tour, and all of a sudden we’re measuring the man who once had everything by what he lacks: a major title this season, a swing coach, the admiration of the nation, the intimidation of his competitors.
“Just life in general the last nine months has been very difficult,” Woods said. “But just as my dad always said, just keep on living. That’s something I have taken to heart quite a bit.”
Woods walked into a press conference Tuesday with his face soaked in sweat. You could see bags under his eyes, and he had shaved off the midlife-crisis goatee he wore while falling apart at the Bridgestone Invitational last weekend.
At that tournament, Woods finished 78th out of 80 players, and he made a handful of swings so casually it was as if he were playing in a scramble and his shot wasn’t needed. In his past 13 tournament rounds, Woods has broken par just once.
“To be honest with you, I thought I would have been here a little bit sooner,” Woods said, explaining that “here” meant playing this poorly. “But somehow I’ve been able to play a little better than I thought I would for a stretch, and then it finally caught up to me last week.”
So this is the most convenient time to bash Tiger, to revel in his struggles, to predict that his personal problems will keep him from his professional goal – winning five more majors to pass Jack Nicklaus.
That would be a mistake. Woods is unlikely to win this weekend; you can’t fix your swing and tame your thoughts on a course as difficult as Whistling Straits.
This may be the week, though, that Woods begins reassembling his golf game, if not his life.
During Woods’ practice round on Tuesday, caddie Steve Williams held a golf shaft to Woods’ right temple to keep him from swaying while swinging. Woods asked swing coach Sean Foley to videotape his motion, and later said he’s considering hiring Foley.
Woods said he wants to play in the Ryder Cup this fall, and that he’s determined to regain his putting touch. He also said that his personal life has stabilized, now that paparazzi are no longer following his every move, or his children’s. “That hasn’t been the case of late,” Woods said. “To me, that’s a sign that it’s headed toward normalizing.”
This has been a lost year for Woods. That does not mean this will be a lost decade.
He’s healthy. At 34, he’s still in his physical prime – Nicklaus won six majors after he turned 35. He remains one of the two greatest golfers who ever lived, and he would not be the first elite American athlete to survive personal embarrassment to return to the top of his sport. Rape accusations hardly deterred Kobe Bryant.
I asked ESPN golf analyst Andy North whether he was surprised by Woods’ collapse. “No,” North said. “But I wouldn’t count him out for next year. I think he just needs to go spend a couple of months on a boat this winter and come back fresh, and he’ll be the same old Tiger.”
So if you’re going to revel in Woods’ travails, or laugh at his discombobulated swing, do so this week. By next spring, Woods will be the man to beat at the Masters, and he’ll recognize that no other golfer in the world had the game or guts to seize his throne.