Can Tiger Woods emerge from this tailspin?
The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am starts Thursday, and for the 12th time in the last 13 years, Tiger Woods will not be in the field.
Woods has skipped this event in the past because he doesn’t like the bumpy poa annua greens at Pebble Beach, wasn’t thrilled with one of the courses used in the tournament’s three-course rotation (Poppy Hills, since replaced), and had no patience for the six-hour rounds that made celebrity amateurs such as Bill Murray and Ray Romano an integral part of the show.
Those drawbacks aren’t what’s keeping Woods away this time, though. There are two primary reasons for his absence, equally concerning: He’s not completely healthy, and he’s lost any semblance of his once-dominant golf game.
Since the start of last season — a span that includes 54 weeks and nine PGA Tour starts — Woods can split his tournament performance into threes: Three made cuts, three missed cuts, three withdrawals because of injury. Of the three cuts Woods made, he finished 69th, tied for 25th, and tied for 80th.
Just when it appeared that he’d reached his low point on the course (all of 2014 might qualify), Woods has been even worse this season. He’s not driving the ball straight, isn’t putting for birdie, and, most shocking, can’t chip the ball from around the greens. His short game, a strength for so many years, has morphed into a series of bladed shots racing across the green and a collection of chunked chips that barely advance the ball. It’s brought audible gasps from those watching and sympathy — sympathy! — from some of his fellow tour players.
Woods has added a pair of worsts to his scorecard recently: His last full round on the PGA Tour, two days before the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, was a 11-over-par 82 down the road at the Phoenix Open, his worst 18-hole score as a professional. And after withdrawing midway through the first round of last week’s tournament at Torrey Pines when his surgically repaired back flared up, Woods has slipped to No. 62 in the world rankings. For someone who has spent a record 683 weeks at No. 1, it’s his worst ranking since Oct. 14, 1996, two months after he turned professional, and two weeks after the first of what has been 79 victories on the PGA Tour.
Other tour players have experienced similar struggles. None, though, have lost their game so publicly, under the intense spotlight that trails Woods like a hungry, lonely, desperate dog.
What, exactly, is wrong with the player who owns 14 major championships and was named PGA Tour player of the year for an 11th time in 2013, when he won five tournaments? Depends who you talk to, because almost everyone who follows golf has a theory.
“I think it’s absolutely mental. I think it’s 100 percent mental,” said Brad Faxon, a Rhode Islander who won eight times on the PGA Tour, and regularly appears on television as an analyst (he will work for Fox in 2015). “I would say if you videotaped him hitting a shot on the course like we’ve seen, you’ll have every instructor in the world say, ‘Well, look, he did this, he dipped, he swung too far inside out.’ But if you went and watched him in practice, I’m sure he’s doing it great in practice, his technique is good. I think the bad thoughts caused the physical problems, where most people think it’s the opposite.”
Woods is now on his fourth swing coach as a professional: First he was with Butch Harmon, then Hank Haney, Sean Foley, and now since late November, Chris Como. Since leaving Haney, Woods hasn’t won a major championship, and has become mesmerized by analytical data, something that’s pushed by Foley and Como. Many observers, including Bill McInerney, a performance coach in Dedham who works with PGA Tour players, feel that’s hurt Woods, not helped.
“Tiger turned golf into math, instead of keeping it a sport,” said McInerney. “There’s so much information out there nowadays, it can really be detrimental instead of helpful. You have to understand your game.
“To fix it, you really have to go back to your roots, get more into shot-making and feel, and give yourself a little bit of time, a few months, to really start to improve and get your sequence back.”
Will Woods’s body allow him to do that? He was limited to seven tour starts in 2014 because of back issues, which required surgery. As recently as Jan. 30, when he shot the 82 in Phoenix, Woods said of his health, “I’m fine. That’s not an issue anymore.” Six days later, Woods was grimacing in pain and leaving the course in a golf cart after another tournament cut short by injury. It’s becoming too familiar a scene.
Will Woods’s mind allow him to play good golf again? It’s easy to notice that Woods looks uncomfortable on the course, searching for something that he knows he can produce, yet unsure of how or where to find it.
Take it from Ian Baker-Finch, who went through a similar tailspin after winning the 1991 British Open. Baker-Finch was never able to climb out of it, and in comments made to an Australian radio station earlier this week, uttered a word while describing Woods that is even worse than ‘yips,’ which would also apply.
“I understand a lot more what he’s going through. I would hit 50 perfect drives on the range, and snap-hook it off the first tee. He does exactly the same thing. At Augusta every year, he’s so nervous he hits it 100 yards off-line off that first tee, and he’s just hit 50 perfect drives on the range,” Baker-Finch said. “You can’t tell me that’s a bad back, or a swing flaw. It’s totally mental. It’s not the yips. It’s not a spasm. It’s a fear, and he has to overcome that fear.
“I would love Tiger to just go play golf every day and stay away from the machines and the mechanics and the trying to be perfect. I’d like to just see him go play and shoot a score every day and enjoy golf again and maybe even learn to play again, if that’s the right terminology. I think he’s forgotten how to play golf. I think he’s trying to play with a perfect swing every day, every time. The pressure’s great, he’s under tremendous scrutiny. It’s why I gave up the game.”
Assuming Woods is healthy — he said after his withdrawal that, “My glutes are shutting off. I tried to activate my glutes as best I could, but they never stayed activated” – expect his next start to come Feb. 26 at the Honda Classic.
Until then, the questions that have followed Woods for the past year will remain unanswered, and he’s the only one that can make them go away. Will he? Can he?
These are strange times on the PGA Tour. Woods is a mess, as is Phil Mickelson, who has missed cuts in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2002. Top-ranked Rory McIlroy, the tour’s reigning player of the year, won’t make his tour debut until the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March.
“McIlroy’s already played well overseas, he won a few weeks ago. Jason Day, I think, is going to be the next No. 1 player. I think Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler are going to have great years. A guy like Patrick Reed, I think he’s going to win more,” Faxon said. “I think change is always good for our game, and I wouldn’t count Phil Mickelson out. He’s very streaky. He can miss three cuts in a row, then win three tournaments in a row.
“All eyes are on Tiger now, though.”