In his thirst for progress, Tiger has regressed
JUL 14, 2014 12:00p ET
HOYLAKE, England -- Much water has passed under the bridge since Tiger Woods last crossed the Mersey.
Eight years ago, Woods authored perhaps the most emotional of his 14 major triumphs, winning the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool after the death of his father and mentor, Earl.
What his third – and, to date, last – claret jug meant to him didn’t require a psychic to divine: It was a story written in tears and punctuated by Woods collapsing on the 72nd green into the arms of his then-caddie, Steve Williams.
Times have changed.
Williams, of course, is now long gone – plying his trade on the bag of the new world No. 1, Adam Scott – but that’s not the only difference.
Back then, Woods was still in his prime; still golf’s most dominant player.
Now, very simply, he’s not.
The reason he’s not what he once was depends on who is asked.
Woods’ many defenders – and, indeed, the man himself – will point to his plethora of injuries and the effects they’ve had on what is both golf’s most ripped and, ironically, also most fragile 38-year-old body.
After a terrible start to the season, Woods had relatively minor surgery March 31 to alleviate the pain caused by a disk in his lower back agitating nerves.
He returned – with little time to prepare adequately – at the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago in Washington, D.C. After admitting he would never have played the event if it hadn’t benefited his foundation, an obviously rusty Woods missed the cut by four shots.
Ironically, his long game – which he’d expected to not be sharp after such a long layoff and with so little time to prepare – wasn’t bad.
His short game, however, was abysmal.
The best escape artist in golf saved par only three times from 16 attempts. He also made only two of seven putts between 4 and 8 feet. And perhaps that’s as good a place as any to start when examining why this Tiger doesn’t roar anymore.
“It's hard to be as great as you once were if you don't make putts,” says Paul Azinger, who will call the Open championship for ESPN.
There is no denying Woods no longer chips and putts like he once did. But there is also growing disquiet about the wholesale swing changes he has made under the watch of Sean Foley.
Foley began working with Woods in August 2010, so it’s been almost four years, yet Woods still seems to be playing “golf swing” instead of naturally swinging the club.
“If somebody tells Tiger Woods it's going to take six weeks or six months (to improve his swing), it would shock me,” Azinger says. “I think if you don't have Tiger hitting it better in the first 10 or 15 minutes, then you're probably giving him bad information.”
Azinger is one of many who believe Woods should never have left his first coach, Butch Harmon.
“He may look back and have regrets,” he says. “I know that he's only worked with one guy that's played golf at a really high level, and that's Butch Harmon, and for him to just turn it all over to two guys (Hank Haney and Foley) that have never played on a high level is a bit of a mystery considering how great Tiger was when he did it.
“I'm not trying to be harsh, I guess it's more blunt. Tiger has made astronomical changes in a quest to get better, and as a result Tiger has actually gotten a little bit worse. I think we can all pretty much see that.”
In comparing Woods with the man whose record of 18 majors he stalks, Jack Nicklaus, Azinger sees a critical difference in philosophy.
“Jack understood that if he could stay the same, he would still dominate,” he says. “Tiger didn't need to get better. He just didn't need to get worse. He needed to stay the same and he could still dominate, and in his quest to get better, it's kind of backfired on him.”
Woods and his defenders will counter that he left Harmon in order to get better – it’s arguable whether his swing improved under Haney, but he still managed to win six majors – and then once he regressed under Haney, and their relationship became dysfunctional, he needed a new coach and sought out Foley.
Foley might, too, point out that Woods won five times in 2013; no mean feat.
But what is beyond debate is that Woods has been most vulnerable where he can afford it the least – at the majors.
We have entered a seventh year since Woods last won one of the sport’s biggest prizes. He’s had his opportunities, but the weekends on the biggest stages – moments he used to own -- haven’t been good to him.
Indeed, the last time Woods shot in the 60s on a Sunday at a major was the 2011 Masters.
Coincidentally -- probably -- that was also the last time Williams carried his bag at a major.