Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tiger Woods= Finished?

"Jack White is the Tiger Woods of Rock Music when it comes to work ethic and priorities. Everyone wants Tiger to save the world and speak out on social issues, and all Tiger cares about is winning golf tournaments…golf is his life. If his leg is okay, I'm sure he's somewhere hitting a golf ball (or thinking about it) right this second. While other musicians are trying to 'Make Trade Fair' (cough) or 'Save Africa' (cough, cough) all Jack White wants to do is make more great music…music is his life. I'm sure Jack White is somewhere playing his guitar right this second."

This passage in praise of the White Stripes' album 'Elephant' from my friend Misha might well be the most ironic thing ever written on this blog. It's a pretty stunning upset given a) the number of asinine-in-hindsight things I've written over the years and b) the fact that when Misha wrote this in 2008, the reaction if anything would've been to say it was too complimentary towards Jack White. Like, "Dude, Jack White is good and all, but c'mon, he's no TIGER WOODS. Save that kind of praise for the Beatles or Elvis."

It's crazy that just 18 months ago, Tiger Woods was less a man that he was a standard of excellence. Hailed as the best athlete of the decade, the greatest golfer of all time, the ultimate in determination/winning/competition, etc. You could know nothing about golf and still know about Tiger Woods. For those who do know golf, it wasn't a stretch to say that his impact dwarfed the entire sport itself. He won so often that my buddy Kyle and I once rated his major championship victories by how compelling they were. Hell, I once predicted that Woods would break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles by 2010 -- last freaking year.

Of course, the key sentence was in the third graph of that post: "I think it's pretty clear that Tiger is going to break the record barring an injury or assassination by Phil Mickelson." Well, Phil didn't need to go Gillooly on Tiger since the injury bug did the trick for him. It's clear that Tiger's 2008 ACL surgery on his left knee was the turning point in his career and life, since then, it's been all downhill.

Now, some might make the logical argument that the knee surgery wasn't nearly as crushing to Woods as his marriage falling apart and how his personal life kept the lights on at TMZ for about a year. After all, Woods won six tournaments in 2009 (his first year back from the surgery), but he hasn't won anything since the scandal broke. I disagree. The mental toll of a divorce, not to mention going from admired sports icon to punchline, was no doubt traumatic. But for any athlete, when they find they can no longer trust their body, that's the end of the line. Tiger has continued to have knee problems since, not to mention back and neck issues to boot. I'm not the first to point out that Woods is an OLD 35 years old -- he's been playing golf since he was literally an infant. That accumulation of rounds takes its toll on the body. It's possible Tiger would've been able to grit out his injuries, a divorce and his much-heralded "swing changes" individually, but altogether, they've crippled his game.

Can Tiger break Jack Nicklaus' record? Woods has 14 majors, so he "only" has to win five more. I use the quote marks since in the history of the sport, only 13 guys have ever won more than five major championships in their careers, so it's not like Tiger is just inches away here. But it's possible, POSSIBLE he can still pull this off. Consider: since the divorce scandal, he's tied for fourth at the 2010 US Open, and at both the 2010 and 2011 Masters. Since his knee surgery, he's had those results plus a second place at the 2009 PGA and he's tied for sixth at the 2009 Masters and US Open. So it's not like Woods is totally falling apart here. He's still been close on the big stages but he just can't sealed the deal. It's not like these tournaments are cocktail waitresses, hey-o!

The troubling part of those results, though, is that they all came on courses that he has been successful on in the past, so if Tiger couldn't snatch wins there, he's in trouble. Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach and Hazeltine aren't going to appear again in the major rota until Pebble gets the US Open in 2019. Let's look at Tiger's best results on the next nine US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship host courses.

Congressional: T19 at the 1997 US Open
Royal St. George's: T4 at the 2003 British Open
Atlanta Golf Club: T29 at the 2001 PGA
Olympic Club: T18 at the 1998 US Open
Royal Lytham: T25 at the 2001 British Open
Kiawah Island: Never played
Merion: Never played
Muirfield: T28 at the 2002 British Open
Oak Hill: T39 at the 2003 PGA

Not many Tiger-friendly courses in this lot. In 2014, things pick up with the U.S. Open at Pinehurst (Tiger has a second and a T3 at the last two Pinehurst Opens), the British Open at Royal Liverpool (a win in 2006) and the PGA at Valhalla (that epic playoff win over Bob May in 2000). So if you're counting on a great comeback story from Woods down the road once he's stabilized his golf game and personal life, 2014 is probably your target year. Of course, there's also Augusta National, which Tiger has dominated in the past and even come close to winning during these last three traumatic years. I feel he's going to snatch another green jacket just by sheer dint of always being near the top of the leaderboard at the Masters.

So here's my revised prediction. Tiger Woods will finish his career with 16 major championships. At least one will be a Masters. Given the current state of his game and health, it's hard to see him grinding out a US Open or dealing with the conditions at a British Open. The PGA is kind of a crapshoot every year, so it's possible Woods could pick up one of those titles. Hey, for all we know, maybe Tiger will take to Kiawah Island in 2012 like a duck to water and win there. So let's say one Masters and one PGA, or just two Masters wins.

Sixteen major titles is still, needless to say, extraordinary, and there will still be those who will champion Woods as the greatest golfer ever despite coming two majors short of Nicklaus. But 18 months ago, it was a foregone conclusion that Tiger sets the record. Now, the general consensus seems to be that Tiger will win at most a couple more majors or (perhaps) even none at all, since you can't win if you can't hit clutch putts. Tiger's knee forced him to quit after nine holes today at the Players Championship, but in a macro sense, his knee will keep him from reaching 18.


Kyle said...

Solid article...though I did want to point out that Tiger won at Congressional in 2009 at "his" event (the AT&T National). Will the setup be the same next month? Surely not. Nevertheless...

For the record, I still think he breaks Jack's record (and not just because I have $100 riding on him doing it--as much as I loathe him--before he turns 40). I actually think he gets to 20. But it's definitely not the slam dunk it used to be.

Question Mark said...

I forgot about Congressional as the site for the AT&T and the old Kemper Open a few times over the years. BUT, I'd still be stunned if Tiger wins the U.S. Open, given his health issues.

You can kiss that $100 goodbye. I highly doubt that Tiger wins five majors in the next five years. If he does get there, I think it'll be as Ian O'Connor proposed on Joe Posnanski's podcast --- Tiger finally gritting out that record-breaking major when he's in his late 40's or early 50's.