On those occasions when he managed a good shot, the applause was warm, not explosive, as if Jack Benny were delivering some old punch line you’ve heard a hundred times.
On those occasions when somebody yelled his name, it came in an almost pleading tone, like when a young boy near the seventh tee said with almost tears dripping from words, “Come on, Tiger.” Tiger Woods walked past him – then hit his ensuing tee shot into the bunker.
It has been 23 months since Tiger Woods won a tournament. It has been 39 months since he has won a major. There is a point when you start to realize, he never is going to be Tiger Woods again.
That doesn’t mean he’ll never win another event. But after watching Woods implode in the opening round of the PGA on Thursday, firing a cartoon-like eight bogeys (including three doubles) over his final 13 holes, this would be a good time to cease any lingering assumptions about his return to greatness.
He is not the same player. Everybody on the course knows it, most in the galleries know it and somewhere down deep maybe even he knows it. The problem is not that Woods was compared to the greats like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer from such an early age. The problem is, that’s who he is now. Players are starting to look at him as more legend than threat.
It’s not the knee. It’s not the Achilles. It’s not the fact that he has fired swing coaches and caddies. When your name is Tiger Woods and you shoot a 7-over 77 in the opening round of a major, it’s about what’s inside the cranium.
Last week he finished tied for 37th at the no-cut Bridgestone Invitational. At one point, he complained that he was “hitting it too flush.” What does that even mean?
On Thursday at the Atlanta Athletic Club, he started on the back nine and was 3 under through five holes. But he said he was playing “mechanical,” so he decided to loosen up, and that’s when things fell apart.
Really? Let’s break down Woods’ self-analysis. First, he was playing solid. But he said he didn’t like the way he felt so he changed. “I figured I was 3 under and could start letting it go and could play by instinct and feel, and I screwed up my whole round.”
Question: Was there not a point when he was shooting 10 over par in 13 holes when Woods thought he should get “mechanical again?”
Or can we just call this what it is? The guy just isn’t that good over 18 holes anymore. Certainly not over 72. We have to stretch the memory to recall the last time he sank a significant putt.
When Woods goes double bogey-bogey-par-double bogey-bogey-bogey-par-bogey, it’s not because new caddie Bryon Bell is handing him the wrong club.
Perception has changed on the course. Young players don’t fear him the way competitors used to. It’s like comparing how Mike Tyson was viewed before Evander Holyfield humiliated him twice and after. That’s not saying Woods and Tyson are similar grease fires. It’s more about whether competitors are still intimidated by Woods – and they’re not.
Perception also has changed off the course. Athletes can go either way after public humiliation. Few, if any, have had their personal life unravel like Woods. He went from the perfect family with the perfect wife to TMZ on steroids.
Nobody would ever look at Woods the same. He had to know that. He hasn’t won a tournament since he had an argument with wife, Elin, and crashed his Escalade into a tree outside his Orlando home in November 2009, leading to the public circus.
He hit into the water three times Thursday. He hit into the sand a dozen more. It was Woods’ worst opening round in any major. It was his worst PGA round ever. He may not make the cut.
The folks in the AAC gift shop were a tad presumptuous. They posed mannequins in four colored shirts — pink, blue, white, red — with a “Tiger Woods” credential hanging around the neck. The colors corresponded to Woods’ fashion plans for the tournament’s four days. Oops.
“I’m not down — I’m really angry right now,” he said later. “There’s a lot of words I can use beyond that.”
On the course, he did.
It used to be the profanity on the course was overlooked because he won. Now, it merely illustrates the man’s frustrations. And there’s no sign of that ending.
By Jeff Schultz