Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2010

A Season Of Promise, Utterly Lost

The Masters is of course always played at Augusta National, and the annual locations of the other three men’s major golf tournaments are known several years in advance. So sometime well before last year’s Thanksgiving weekend, it would have been possible to look forward to the 2010 golf season and confidently predict that this would be the year of the Tiger. Sitting on 14 major championships since his playoff win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open, the chosen venues for this year’s four tournaments seemed for the most part to be hand-picked for, if not by, Tiger Woods.

Woods loves Augusta National, where he has won four green jackets and has eleven top ten finishes in fourteen appearances as a pro. Augusta was the site of his first major championship, the incredible 12-shot victory in 1997. But as impressive as that was, his most dominating performance in a major was at the 2000 U.S. Open, when he lapped the field, winning by 15 strokes and finishing at a previously unheard of 12-under par. That tournament was played at Pebble Beach, which just happened to be the site for this year’s U.S. Open. And then there is the Old Course at St. Andrew’s, which was scheduled to host the Open Championship for the third time in Woods’ career. Tiger was the winner in both previous Opens at the ancient links, winning by 8 shots in 2000 and by a “mere” 5 in 2005. Asked once what courses he would prefer as the locations for golf’s most important events, Tiger replied “St. Andrew’s, four times every year.”

Of the four venues for 2010, only the P.G.A. Championship’s choice of Whistling Straits on the shores of Lake Michigan seemed less than ideal for Tiger’s game. The Straits Course sternly penalizes off-line drives with high fescue and more than 1,000 bunkers. Given his occasional tendency to spray the ball off the tee, it’s no surprise that at the 2004 P.G.A., the only previous major on this Pete Dye design, Woods finished tied for 24th. Still, given the venues for the first three majors, anyone looking ahead would have likely predicted that this would be the year that Tiger would renew his assault on Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18 major championships. It is the one record that Woods most covets, and the one that has always seemed would inevitably be his.

But that was before last year’s Thanksgiving weekend, when Tiger Woods’ life came apart. Not since L. Frank Baum set pen to paper has a carefully crafted public image proved to be such a sham. No amount of message manipulation by Tiger’s handlers and hangers-on could disguise the fact that as in the Emerald City, the man behind the curtain had been running a massive con on his adoring public; and in Woods’ case on his humiliated family as well.

The well-known result was twenty weeks away from the game followed by the worst season of Tiger Woods’ career. It was a season that saw just the sixth missed cut of his career at Quail Hollow, an injury withdrawal at The Players, his worst finish in nearly a decade at The Memorial, and not a single sub-par round at the AT&T National.

But none of that prepared golf fans for his performance at the Bridgestone Invitational. Played each year at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, the limited field event is another of Woods’ favorites. He has won the tournament seven times in eleven appearances. But earlier this month Woods managed to beat just one player in the field, finishing at 18 over par, his worst finish relative to par as a professional.

As for the four majors, they were actually some of his better performances; perhaps not surprising given the favorable venues. He tied for 4th at both The Masters and the U.S. Open, tied for 23rd as St. Andrews, and earlier today tied for 28th at Whistling Straits. But the reality is that aside from a back nine 31 in the third round at Pebble Beach that moved him briefly into third place, Woods was not a serious contender at any of the tournaments that he prizes the most.

It would be foolish to assert that Tiger Woods will never win another major. Indeed, it remains more likely than not that he will eventually surpass Nicklaus. He is after all, only 34. If he wins just one major every other year for the next decade, he’ll beat Jack’s record at age 44; when he will still be two years younger than Nicklaus was when he won his final major at the 1986 Masters. And that pace of winning majors would be less than half of what Woods has achieved in his career thus far.

It appears that at a point in the not too distant future, he will be divorced from Elin Nordegren. His checkbook will be a good bit lighter, and he will have to reconcile the reality of playing a diminished role in the lives of his two young children. But while that will doubtless be difficult, it will also be a point of closure that should finally enable Woods to begin to get his head back in the game. He has also begun to work informally with Sean Foley, coach to Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair. On top of everything else that happened in 2010, Woods parted company with coach Hank Haney in May. If he is able to once again regain his famous focus, and finds a swing doctor in whom he has confidence, certainly Tiger will contend again.

But there is another story in men’s golf this year that will impact his pursuit of the Nicklaus major championships record. That is the emergence of an entire new generation of future stars. With 25-year old Martin Kaymer’s PGA Championship victory this evening, twelve of this year’s Tour events have been won by a golfer in his twenties. That’s more twenty-something winners than in all of 2009, and there are still ten tournaments left on the schedule. Even more impressive is the fact that six of those young golfers were recording not their first PGA Tour win, but their second (Justin Rose), or third (Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Camilo Villegas) or fourth (Adam Scott). This generation of young guns certainly respects Woods’ ability, but they are not over-awed by it. The days when the mere appearance of Woods’ name on the leaderboard caused other golfers’ knees to buckle are over.

Not so long ago, golf fans looking ahead to 2010 saw it as a year of enormous potential for their era’s dominant player. That was back when Tiger Woods’ eventual claim to the most major championships was regarded as a certainty. The entertaining question wasn’t whether, but when; and just how many majors would he claim? Would he win 25? Could he win 30? But now, thanks to a season utterly lost to a self-inflicted purgatory, the pursuit of that record looks much more like the long, hard, and uncertain work of a grinding career.

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