Physical limitations and mental roadblocks have contributed nto the way too soon ipic demise of Tiger Woods.
LeBron James announced in July he’s returning home to Akron and play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tiger Woods may never come back. And if he does, it won’t be the Tiger Woods who won eight tourneys at Firestone Country in LeBron’s hometown.
When Tiger walked off with a back injury in the last round at the recent Bridgestone Invitational, I believe it sealed his fate of where he will stand in history: Tiger Woods is going to have to settle for being the second greatest golfer of all time behind Jack Nicklaus. Tiger has 14 major championships and won’t be able to top the 18 of Nicklaus.
Tiger has won more than one-quarter of all tournaments he’s ever started. No one else is close and will ever approach it again. He needs only four more victories to eclipse the all-time record of 82 by Sam Snead, but majors determine who’s the greatest golfer. I’ve been leaning Nicklaus’ way since Tiger returned from back surgery in June, but Sunday was the first day I realized the race is all but over.
That’s not an easy admission for me because when Tiger turned pro in August 1996 at the age of 20 I believed he would break the Golden Bear’s major record. After watching his mental toughness of winning three straight US Amateur Championships, I knew I was watching someone very special. It reminded me of what I saw when Michael Jordan overcame a season-long injury and emerged in the playoffs against Boston in his second season in the NBA in 1986. I saw then the coming of the Babe Ruth of basketball. And I was right.
I’ve predicted and taken advantage of many of Tiger’s runs throughout his career when he had a mild lull, I could see he was about to click and go on a tear. Tiger’s biggest payoff in a major was when he won the PGA Championship in August 1999. I had him in Vegas for 8-1 and was even willing to plop down some money on him at Pebble Beach at the 2000 U.S. Open at 9-2. He dominated like no other golfer.
I remember championship golfer Curtis Strange, the commentator for ABC, was talking about Tiger at his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996. Tiger, who finished 60th that weekend, said in an interview his goal was to win every tournament he plays. Strange’s response: “He’ll learn.” My response to the television set was “No Curtis, you’ll learn.”
I knew the only thing holding Tiger back from overtaking Jack was his health, especially his back. In the late 1990s, people smarter than I about the golf swing said at the time that it was violent and could take a toll on Tiger’s back and knee. They were right after knee surgeries and other injuries prompted him to make swing changes to retain his health—changes that have held him back from winning a major since the US Open near San Diego in 2008.
Tiger has struggled to hit the driver straight off the tee, especially at the Masters, and if you can’t hit the driver when you need to, you’re going to play long shots from the fairway to the green or play further up but from the rough in majors other than the Masters. Revised golf club specifications make it harder to play from the rough and with Tiger’s swing changes, his play out of the rough has moved from strength to a weakness.
And since his back surgery in March, his swing has changed to the point where he can’t even take back the club as far as needs to be as great and consistent as he was. The sad truth is the Tiger Woods we see today resembles the Michael Jordan who played with the Washington Wizards.
Given how he walked off the course at the Bridgestone Invitational with back pain just months after surgery, it’s unlikely Tiger and even the swing he had a year ago will be back on tour.
It’s fitting that Tiger walked off the same course that a year ago he hurt his back in the second round when he was about to shoot his greatest round in history. He hurt his back when he stopped on a downswing and fell short of the PGA Tour record of 59 and wound up with a 61.
But it’s not only health that’s been holding Tiger back. It’s his mental approach that I thought he could overcome with just one win in a major. The floodgates would open I thought. Now, they’re closed.
Tiger’s playing for history and with dwindling confidence in himself in his eroding physical abilities, it’s prevented him from closing out majors, even when he’s had a shot to win. He’s won big tournaments but he couldn’t get over the hump in the biggest four.
For me, I first noticed his mental shortcomings in May 2009 when he played the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte. Tiger opened with a 65 and was 7 under par and at the top of the leaderboard. Tiger has this tourney. He never loses after a start like that. He muddled the rest of the way and finished fourth.
Something had to be wrong I thought. I even mentioned it on a golf site and Tiger fans weren’t happy with me for questioning Tiger’s psyche. Three months later after winning at Bridgestone, Tiger blew the lead at the PGA Championship on Sunday by shooting a 75. He had never lost a major after leading after the third round.
Something had to be up.
Something was up and more than three months later he crashed into a mailbox and the scandal broke about his affairs. He still hasn’t recovered from that. His inner strength and confidence that he had at the highest level are gone and may never come back, especially when he knows he’s not the same physically. The completion is much better than when Tiger started his career and won all those majors. Add in the injuries and the mental drop off and Tiger Woods has become Humpty Dumpty trying to put all of the pieces back together again—body and mind.
That’s too much for any man to overcome, even Tiger, who will remain the second greatest golfer in history. What a shame.
It feels a bit like if Jordan had missed the last shot against Utah in 1998 and the Bulls went on to lose the NBA finals.
I’m not defending Tiger. He’s not the most pleasant person and can be a genuine jerk. So are a lot of other superstar athletes who people admire but don’t know them out of the spotlight.
This is about watching a prodigy do something we’ve never seen before and just admire their talent.
What we saw from Tiger at the Bridgestone Invitational is not the way you like to see a champion depart the stage, and it may become our lasting memory.