Golf

Lusetich: Tiger knows this much — he's still in his prime

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods hits a drive on the seventh hole during a pro-am at Torrey Pines on Wednesday.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN DIEGO

What do you get the man who has everything?

A billion dollars later — if those career-earnings estimates are to be believed — as Tiger Woods begins his 19th season as a professional, I gave it some thought and decided to give him a question I knew he wouldn’t fully and honestly answer.

Think of it as an anniversary gift to a man who’s made a career of refusing to, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “bare his soul to their shallow, prying eyes.”

It’s a question that’s long intrigued me, ever since Woods’ estranged coach, Hank Haney, dropped the subject into casual dinner conversation a few years ago. If Woods doesn’t win another major beyond the 14 he already owns, he wouldn’t consider his career to have been a disappointment, according to Haney.

I was left stunned by the idea.

After all, I was here at Torrey Pines in 2008 and would’ve bet then that Woods, 32 and about to get a new knee, was more likely to win 50 majors than not another.

How could he — the ultimate winner — think second place isn’t so bad?

But as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that my views were shaped because I’d bought into the Legend of 18: the idea that Woods had been stalking golf’s greatest champion, Jack Nicklaus, and his record 18 majors since boyhood is, indeed, a compelling narrative.

TEE IT UP

Stay on course with this season's pro golf schedules.

But is it true?

Caddie Steve Williams was with Woods for more than a decade — and 13 majors victories — and rarely remembers the golfer even mentioning Nicklaus’ record.

Does the now 38-year-old Tiger, divorced and chasing around two kids as well as Lindsey Vonn, really have the same goals and aspirations as the 8-year-old Tiger, who cared only about golf?

Maybe.

But maybe not, too.

The only thing I knew for sure is that I wouldn’t get the answer from Tiger — at least not in front of shallow, prying eyes at the Farmers Insurance Open late on a Wednesday morning.

“I don't know because I'm not done with my career,” he said, maneuvering, as always, carefully. “That's a question that's hypothetical, so I don't know how you want me to go with that.”

A simple yes or no would’ve sufficed, T-Dub.

Instead, he went on to say that he’s not tilting at windmills quite yet.

PGA TOUR WIN LEADERS

Collecting trophies is a habit of Tiger Woods.

“All I know is that I'm still in, I feel, my peak years,” he said. “I'm still playing well. There have been a number of guys who have gone on even in their early 40s to win major championships. Mark (O’Meara) did it; he's the oldest one to do it, to win multiples in the same year. Jack won in his 40s, (Ben) Hogan won multiples in his 40s, actually 38 and above.

“I feel like I've got a number of years ahead of me, and I'm really looking forward to that.”

How, then, does this year fit into the picture?

There are those who think that if Woods fails to win a major in 2014 — with three to be played at Augusta National, Hoylake and Valhalla, courses he has won at before — then breaking Jack’s record might be beyond him.

Again, Woods wasn’t about to betray anything.

“I view it as every year's a big year,” he said.

He acknowledged, though, that the sands of time aren’t as plentiful these days.

“I know that I don't have 20 years in my prime,” he said.

He conceded, too, that he’s not — physically, at least — the same player he once was.

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“I'm still able to generate the same amount of clubhead speed as I did when I was younger, it's just that I can't do it every shot anymore,” he said. “I don't have the rotational speed that I used to, and that's a fact of aging.”

But, he said, he’s stronger and wiser.

“I've made up for it in other areas, which obviously is the strength that you see — my body looks very different than it was when I first came out on Tour — and then understanding how to manage myself around a golf course, how to attack a golf course, how to pick it apart and dissect it,” he said.

Woods likened his career arc to that of his Nike mentor, Michael Jordan.

“When you look at MJ when he first came out, he was able to dunk over everybody. But he got beat up by the Pistons three straight playoffs, he was out, and next thing you know he built up his body and developed a fadeaway. “So you do it a different way. You're still able to be successful, but you do it a different way. You evolve as you age, and I think I've done that so far.

“Some tournaments, I'm still able to crank it out there and bomb it out there. . . .  Other tournaments, (you) play small ball because that's what the golf course has forced you to do. I think that's where being a little bit younger, I didn't really understand that sometimes and I wasn't always as patient as I am now.”

Another Woodsian trait to go with divine golf and a penchant for secrecy is a lifelong commitment to never turning the other cheek, so it wasn’t surprising he waded into the debate over last year’s Player of the Year.

The PGA Tour presented him with its award — as did the PGA of America — but the Golf Writers Association of America instead gave its top honor to the media-friendly Adam Scott.

To be fair, the GWAA took into account global success — Scott won twice in Australia, as well as taking the Masters and The Barclays — not just wins on the PGA Tour, but I doubt that would have mattered to Woods.

He saw it as a snub by the media — a narrative that suits him.

“People look at winning five times as, you know, it's easy to do probably because I've done it (10 times),” he said. "I've played at a high level for a very long time, but it's not easy to do. We as players understand it, but I think if you're not out here competing all the time, you perceive it differently than I think we do.

“That's why the Player of the Year award is so coveted, because it's respect from your fellow peers.”

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus

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