As the 2011 golf season ramps up, with the final three majors to be played in the next three months, questions on the mindset and physical condition of the former world number one Tiger Woods remain unanswered.
The golfer polarised the golf and wider sports community – beloved, admired, worshipped, or viewed as disrespectful and arrogant?
1997 and Woods tames Augusta, winning by twelve shots against the best players in the game.
We knew Woods was coming – three US Amateur crowns certainly announce your presence, couldn’t compete against a young rampant Woods. Woods smashed Augusta, forcing the most significant changes to the course in 50 years – the introduction of the first cut.
From that first major, Woods has invigorated the crowds, generating mass hysteria when his charges ran down players in tournaments. Developing a stronger cult following than the lovable Arnie’s Army, who followed the first anointed god of golf with such passion; Woods played without fear, with determination and grit and a sense of assuredness that belied his youthful exterior.
The first intermission on Woods career came after an amazing performance in the US Open at Torrey Pines, where Woods beat Mediate in a playoff.
Nothing special you might say, but Woods played on a broken knee, visibly in pain on many shots during the tournament.
An incredible performance and one that provided him the opportunity to sink an amazing downhill birdie putt on the 72nd hole to make the playoff.
To say that Woods was a certainty to win undervalues Mediate’s contribution to a great playoff.
Mediate played great golf, behind by as many as three shots during the playoff, he held his nerve to make three straight birdies from 13 through 15; and hold a one shot lead on the final tee. No surprises that the man who had been unbeatable in majors would find a way to birdie the last and extend the playoff to sudden death.
And, of course, par the 91st hole for his win. Totally expected.
Television coverage was so one dimensional when Woods was number one, that when Woods was forced out of the game due to injury, the game wondered how it could maintain its status on the sporting world.
Commentators mused whether the game could survive, without the reigning world number one to profile events and attract sponsorship. It did.
Woods recovered from his operation and took his game one step further with a rebuilt swing and the same attitude.
In 2008, he played six tournaments in the US and won four, with top five finishes in his two other events, including second in the Masters and the US Open victory. In 2009, after his recovery Woods played 18 tournaments in the US, winning six and finishing in the top 10 in six others. And his majors record – three top six finishes and a missed cut.
Woods had done it.
And his quest for his place in history seemed assured. Woods had recovered from injury, rehabilitation and taken his place as the rightful king of modern golf.
Then with 14 Majors, three US Amateur events and 82 worldwide tour victories, came the second (some might say third after the passing of his father Earl Woods) critical event in the Woods franchise. Following a visit to Australia for the Australian Masters, which he duly won, the Woods facade imploded.
A second bout of rehabilitation followed which included personal character remodelling; which unfortunately included the infamous telecast of the ‘Live Confession’ and sickening Nike commercial featuring Earl Woods.
For the highest profile sportsman in the world the fall from grace would have been devastating – personally embarrassing and professionally ripping at the mental core that Woods Inc had developed.
And, of course, resulted in the unravelling of Woods Inc live on worldwide media – wife, home, profile, sponsorship and the veneer of invincibility that he had maintained since his amateur days.
And now Woods is attempting the third coming.
And one has to wonder if mentally the guy has the goods to perform and deliver on his life mission to claim the Nicklaus throne of 18 Majors.
Woods has been able to recover the physical, do the rehabilitation programs and continue his march once before. But as a man with no secrets, with his past laid open for the world to see, with his character exposed to both die hard supporters and those that are less than forgiving; what now remains for Eldrick Woods?
In recent months we have seen Woods capitulate in the final round of the Masters, from a winning position on Sunday afternoon he failed to close the event. He lost to Graeme McDowell in a playoff. He has slumped outside the World Top Ten in the rankings, on a continued slide. He has not won in over 20 months, with his December 2009 victory in Australia his last worldwide.
Can Woods reach 18 majors? Form is one aspect of winning, mental belief is another. Woods himself has been quoted as saying: “I want to be what I’ve always wanted to be: dominant.” He may be able to find a new swing coach, he may be able to recover his game; but does he have the ability to regain the mental strength that made him unbeatable? The guy who led majors and was never beaten?
One has to wonder. The strange thing about Woods is that he has never won a major coming from behind? Arnie’s charges were earth shattering. Jack knew that he would win, and so did his opposition. How could potentially the greatest golfer that has ever lived never win a major when he has not led after 54 holes? Why was he so dominant when leading, and not so – when coming from behind?
The interesting thing prior to his personal failures was that Y. E. Yang had beaten him for the first time when holding a lead. Unfortunately, we never got to see if that impacted his performance for better or worse, any chink that Yang exposed was miniscule in relationship to the chasm of personal damage Woods inflicted on himself.
Tiger was dominant. But can he be again? Personally, I do not believe he can recover the aura that he had. With his personal life laid bare for all, he has lost the armour that protected him from the real world. The world beyond his destiny on the golf course.
Tiger can win tournaments, probably majors, but to recover his form and mental resolve to achieve number one will be a challenge.
And his quest for history, in this golfer’s opinion, is out of reach.