Woods might need to teach himself how to win

Tiger Woods laughed at the question and it was hard to blame

him.

Woods had won 82 times around the world, including 14 majors. In

the 47 tournaments that he had the outright lead going into the

final round, only four players had managed to beat him. This was

golf’s ultimate closer.

But this also was a new world for Woods.

In the 12 months since his personal life came crashing down, he

not only failed to win, he was never in serious contention. On this

occasion, the 2010 Australian Masters, he made two eagles on the

last four holes to turn an ordinary round into a 65 and back his

way into fourth place. He was asked that day if he would have to

learn how to win again the longer he failed to get in the hunt.

”No,” he said, breaking into a confident smile.

Woods didn’t even let the reporter finish a follow-up question,

smiling while shaking his head. ”No, no, no.”

Three weeks later, Woods blew a four-shot lead in the final

round of the Chevron World Challenge and lost in a playoff to

Graeme McDowell. He later attributed that to being able to hit only

one shot – a draw – while in the early stages of a swing

overhaul.

A year later, when his health returned, Woods had a one-shot

lead going into the weekend at the Australian Open and shot 75,

falling six shots behind and never catching up. And then on Sunday

in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, he was tied for the 54-hole

lead with Robert Rock and couldn’t hang with an Englishman who was

No. 117 in the world with one career victory.

One shot behind when he made the turn, Woods didn’t make a

single birdie on the back nine.

Not to be overlooked was his win at the Chevron World Challenge

two months ago, when he started the final round one shot behind

Zach Johnson and birdied the last two holes for a one-shot victory.

It was an important win because it meant something to Woods, yet it

was hard not to notice how much harder he had to work to get

it.

Woods is still not there. He never thought winning was easy, but

he used to make it look that way.

So what to make of Abu Dhabi?

As usual, it’s best not to jump to conclusions about Woods. Even

back in more peaceful times, there were whispers that he was in a

slump to start the 2001 season. He failed to win his first five

tournaments, then went to Dubai and lost a one-shot lead to Thomas

Bjorn, hitting into the water and making double bogey on his last

hole.

”A lot of people are talking about Tiger being in a slump and

he’s not doing the right things,” Bjorn said that day. ”The guy

is playing fantastic golf. He just hasn’t won in the last couple of

weeks.”

Not years. Not months. Weeks.

Sure enough, Woods won his next three tournaments, capping it

off at the Masters for an unprecedented sweep of the majors.

Expectations always will be higher for Woods for no other reason

than his record was so astounding from the lead. After that loss to

Bjorn until the 2009 PGA Championship, he was 25-0 with the

outright lead going into the final round.

Over the course of a career, it’s bound to even out a little.

And remember, there was one year when Woods twice lost tournaments

when he had at least a share of the lead going into the final

round. That was in 2000, when many believe he was at the top of his

game.

Winning, though, is more important than ever now.

Woods no longer has that aura of invincibility. That will only

return if he starts winning with regularity, and it doesn’t matter

whether he beats Robert Rock or Rory McIlroy.

Nick Faldo once thought the Masters would be the only major

Woods could win, because it was the only golf course where the

media were kept outside the ropes. Only later did Faldo realize

what an advantage that turned out to be for Woods.

”Everyone joining him now on the weekend at a major goes into

his world,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. ”That’s Tiger’s

arena. Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back

out. He’s there all the time. And each times he’s there, he gains

more experience. And then for the rest of the guys, good luck

stepping into his world.”

That world suddenly is crowded.

At the moment, no matter how much he has improved, Woods has not

set himself apart.

To suggest that Woods faces deeper competition than ever before

is to ignore his dominance, and to show little respect for those

who had to face him at his best. When one guy is winning 11-of-29

majors while taking an average of six PGA Tour events a year, that

doesn’t leave much for everyone else.

But the more opportunities Woods lets slip away, such as Abu

Dhabi, the longer it takes to regain his edge, if he ever does.

Woods decided two years ago that he was willing to put in the

time to revamp his swing under a third coach, Sean Foley, and that

process appears to be coming along. Not to be forgotten is that

Woods missed nearly five months of being able to practice because

of injuries to his legs.

Luke Donald and Robert Karlsson, who played with him in Abu

Dhabi, were struck by the flight and shape of Woods’ shot. That’s

what always set him apart from the others – that and his putting.

Ultimately, putting will determine not only whether Woods wins

again, but how often.

In the meantime, Abu Dhabi can be perceived two ways.

It was another chance for Woods to establish himself against

this new world order, and he couldn’t buy a birdie; or in his last

three tournaments, he has won and finished third twice.

But the question remains from two years ago.

He took the time to learn a new swing under a new coach. Now

does he have to teach himself how to win again?

For that, he has only one teacher.