Have we seen the end of the Tiger era?

Have we seen the end of the Tiger era?

Published May. 19, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Because majors still matter to him, expect to see Tiger Woods at the US Open next month.

But even if he’s in the field at Congressional, will he truly be back?

Will he ever be back, or have we seen the best of him?

Next week, the man who spent 623 weeks at No. 1 will fall out of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time since 1997; since the week before he changed everything by winning that historic first Masters.


Woods hasn’t won any tournament since his life was engulfed by a tabloid firestorm in November 2009, and last Thursday he limped away from The Players Championship after hacking his way to six over par in just nine holes.

As he was leaving TPC Sawgrass, Woods was asked whether his problematic left leg was causing him as much pain as it did in 2008, when he bravely won his last major, the US Open at his beloved Torrey Pines.

His answer revealed just how much things have changed in the ensuing three years.

“No, no, my leg was broken there,” Woods said, “So no, not quite that bad.”

No one in golf will — or should — question his courage, but before courage comes commitment, and that’s another story.

“He’s mentally the toughest guy I’ve ever seen out here,” Kenny Perry said. “I don’t know what happened to that.

“He keeps saying he’s physically hurt, so I guess we’ve got to go with that.”

Not everyone’s going with it, however.

Stewart Cink has been battling Woods — whom he calls “the best that’s ever played” — since their junior days. He doesn’t look to the physical for explanations.

“When I won (wire-to-wire) at Firestone in ’04, I wouldn’t say I dominated the field, but I was leading by a handful of strokes most of the way. It was a great week, everything sort of came together, and I played really well,” he said. “It gave me a lot of confidence, but I didn’t go on and do it week after week.

“Tiger, he was like that for years. Just dominating everyone. And his belief just kept getting stronger and stronger and stronger, and it just seemed to always be growing.

“His personal struggles off the course, and the rough patch he’s still going through, it’s eaten away at his belief.

“Before this happened, he never believed he wasn’t going to win. I guess it’s just hard to keep that up forever.”

Former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger also believes Woods’ core problems are emotional.

"His world self-destructed,” he said.

“I know he is angry; he is angry at himself, and he is angry at the world that tore him down. He is angry at a lot of people.

“He has got a lot of stuff going on in his head. Tiger needs to be able to have a shoulder to cry on to get over some of the things that have gone on in his life.”

But Woods, an only child, is at his core a loner, notoriously guarded, keeping his cards close to his chest even with those who think they’re tight with him.

“Tiger, even as well as I know him, sometimes it's very difficult to read him,” Mark O’Meara said.

O’Meara, who was a mentor to Woods for the first decade of his professional career, has offered the shoulder Azinger prescribes.

“I’ve thrown it out there,“ he said, “but he doesn't ask.”

“We go way back. We've spent a lot of quality time together. I believe when you're struggling, it's good to be around your friends and people who really care about you. Not just his golf game and what he's accomplished on the course, but a true friend.

“I feel like I'm a true friend to Tiger, and I want to help him, but he's got to want to come and do it, too.”

Instead, Woods has sought solace in the gym, bulking up and jogging, which experts say does more damage to a knee than a golf swing.

“Tiger goes over the top when he does stuff,” Perry said. “When he works out, he works out religiously; whatever he does, he’s gung-ho. It’s amazing because that’s what made him such a great player, but maybe he’s overdone it.

“When he was playing great golf, he was wiry, thin, loose and quick; he had a lot of speed. Now he’s so thick, he looks like a defensive back in the NFL, but his legs are still little.

“So is his lower body struggling to support his heavier, muscular upper body? I don’t know, maybe it is.”

Of more concern is whether the injuries, or citing the time needed to learn a new swing, aren’t just masking the fact that somewhere along the way golf has become a job or, worse, a depository for all the anger Azinger talks about.

It’s not a secret that Woods doesn’t practice as much as he used to, especially his short game, which has let him down repeatedly over the past 18 months. Apart from at the Masters, he hasn't seemed very enthused at any tournament he’s played this year.

“To win majors and to compete, for a while that's all he's dreamed about,” O’Meara said. “But I think over the last couple years, now having a family and wanting to be there for his kids, I think he still wants that, but how much only he can really determine.

“Is the fire burning as bright as it once did? Maybe not.”

What is true is that if Woods doesn’t rekindle that fire — or if he can’t — golf will suffer.

All the talk coming from the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach about increased television ratings with or without Woods is just whistling past the graveyard.

“He’s a freak of nature, and our tour was just going crazy when he was playing at his best,” Perry said. “I look at The Players, and the galleries are way down. It used to be shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall people, and now you see a lot of green grass out there outside the gallery ropes.

“He brought the fans in, he brought the sponsors in. You need that one person like a Tiger, and everyone gets swept up in the drag.

“Hopefully he’ll get well, do whatever it is he needs to do and figure it out because a lot of people want him back here like he used to be.”

In the meantime, golf is embarking on an age of parity.

“There’s no one out here like Tiger,” Jerry Kelly said. “He was a 12-cylinder in a room full of V-8s.”

Hunter Mahan laughed when asked about the next Tiger.

“If you’re talking about winning seven out of 11 majors or getting 70 tour wins or just dominating like he did, I don’t think that guy’s even been born yet,” he said.

“Even Tiger’s not Tiger anymore.”