Next two weeks will tell where Tiger's at
I’ve learned over the years that Tiger Woods doesn’t say anything without a reason.
Largely overlooked toward the end of his blog entry last week about how good it felt to return to competitive golf was this little nugget:
“I took a little time off after the Masters to go scuba diving and spend time with my family. But I did enjoy a fun round of golf with my friend John Cook at Isleworth Country Club. I double-eagled the par-5 17th hole — the third of my life — with a 5-wood and shot 63, so my game is improving,” he wrote.
Translating the Tigerspeak, he’s saying golf isn’t everything and his family’s the priority — or, sadly, what’s left of it — but, oh, by the way, I shot 9-under par on probably the most difficult course in Florida.
So just in case any of his peers harbored ideas about a coup after watching those popped up three woods and various other hapless miscues which led to 10 bogeys on the weekend at Augusta, he’s telling them that he’s still the big dog.
In the next two weeks, Woods will get his chance to walk that talk.
And he'd better know that he’s going to have to show his peers that he’s the same Tiger in order for them to believe the implosion of his personal life hasn’t weakened him as a golfer.
On one level, it may have been heartening to see Woods interact with the fans at the Masters — he’s never been the robot he can appear to be — but I’ve already heard rumblings from other players that all this touchy feely stuff will cost Woods his legendary ruthless edge.
Woods himself hinted at the dangers in the balancing act he’s attempting when he apologized for his inappropriate language at Augusta but added the caveat that “I'm trying to do everything I can without losing my fire and competitive spirit.”
Like his buddy, Michael Jordan, he may want the fans to love him but his peers need to fear him.
But will they?
We’ll know better after the next two weeks.
There may be no majors in May, but the next two tournaments might just be as compelling as anything we’ll see back-to-back in what’s shaping as a blockbuster year in golf.
Charlotte’s Quail Hollow attracts an A-list field to play on a course worthy of a major. The PGA Tour — which, much to its chagrin, doesn’t own a major — does everything to sell its in-house championship, The Players, as golf’s fifth major. While it's not really that, it still brings together the strongest field of the year.
Woods knows that winning tends to erase memories; holding the trophy on one of the next two Sundays will go a long way to getting him back on the sports pages and out of the tabloids.
But his most recent memories of these two events aren’t good. Last year, along with the missed cut at Turnberry, they represented the low water mark of his comeback from knee reconstruction surgery.
If he’d even had his C-game, he’d have won them both but he’d lost his swing when he needed it most.
To ratchet up the pressure, Woods will have to again go mano-a-mano with Phil Mickelson, who won the Masters and, in some eyes, might be the best player in the world right now.
Certainly, after years of playing second fiddle to Woods, Mickelson’s had his number of late. The Californian has won the last three tournaments (last year’s Tour Championship and HSBC Champions and last month’s Masters) when they’ve both been in the field. And Woods was in the mix to win them all on the Sunday but failed to deliver.
Woods has had many rivals over the years but I can only remember Vijay Singh — during his remarkable nine win season of 2004 — staring him down the way Mickelson has done in the last six months.
Not that there isn’t any pressure on Mickelson. He’s got something to prove, too. Is he really ready to take over the world No. 1 crown or will he just show up from time to time, reverting to the underachiever who opened 2010 with only one top 10 finish in seven tournaments before winning the Masters?
Beyond Mickelson, there’s still, as always, the big picture for Woods, who plays against history as much as he does against any current player.
Woods starts the next act of his career as a 34-year-old who’s four wins short of the only record that matters to him: Jack Nicklaus’s eighteen major championships.
After he’d won the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, it seemed a formality. But then came the knee reconstruction and then, last Thanksgiving, his deconstruction.
History suggests that he has less time than he thinks to get the five majors he needs.
Nicklaus won only four after he’d turned 36, including a hopelessly romantic sixth green jacket at the age of 46.
Byron Nelson won his last major at 33, as did Tom Watson, Gary Player won only one of his nine majors after the age of 38, Walter Hagen was 36 when he stopped winning them and Palmer never won one after turning 34. Bobby Jones retired at 28 after winning his Grand Slam.
“As far as competing, it was just like riding a bike again,” Woods wrote last week.
That may be so, but he needs to put some air in those tires if he wants to get anywhere.