As Tiger Woods made his way to the Oak Hill Country Club parking
lot last Friday afternoon, a television cameraman was lurking
among the courtesy cars, having staked out Woods's getaway. Paul
Azinger happened to be hanging out nearby and took umbrage at
what he perceived to be an invasion of Woods's space. "You get
enough yet? You get enough?" Azinger asked, taunting the
cameraman as he continued to videotape Woods. Getting no
response, Azinger stepped in front of the lens and blocked the
view until Woods was safely behind the wheel of his car. "Why
don't you give the guy a break?" Azinger said before stalking
away. ¬∂ Azinger may have thought he was being gallant, but he was
insulting Woods with his pity. Time was, Woods's fellow pros
fairly cowered in his presence, but that seems like much longer
than 14 months ago, which is when Woods last won a major
championship. After shooting a woeful 12-over-par 292 at the PGA
Championship, Tiger has now gone a full season without winning a
major for the first time since 1998. But numbers don't tell the
whole story. It was his body language that spoke loudest about
the state of his game last week. What started as a hopeful quest
for his ninth major title quickly devolved into an eye-rolling,
head-shaking, shoulder-slumping, club-tossing,
profanity-muttering march to 39th place, Woods's worst finish in
a major since he turned pro in August 1996. It wasn't until the
13th hole on Saturday, when Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, told
his boss, "You just have to f------laugh," that Woods, who was 10
over at that point, so much as cracked a smile. ¬∂ From there,
Woods yukked his way to a three-over 73--after he birdied the
181-yard, par-3 15th, he jokingly apologized to his playing
partner, Jim Furyk, for reclaiming tee box honors for only the
second time all day--but after the round the game's onetime
world-beater sounded like a beaten man. "The reason I was
laughing at the end was because I knew I was going to get a bad
break on every shot," Woods said. "I tell you what, it wears on
your patience, and I've been as patient as possible. I played
my tail off to shoot three over. If I had bagged it, I could
have shot a million." On Sunday, he toiled to another 73,
mercifully bringing his PGA to an end. "It was a tough week,"
said Woods, who made only six birdies during the tournament. "I
didn't hit the ball as well as I needed to."
It's silly to think that a guy ranked second on the Tour's money
list is in the midst of a slump--"Christ, I've won four times,"
Woods says--but Tiger's 0 for '03 in the majors is a reality
check. Majors tend to expose the flaws in a player's game, and
it's no coincidence that Woods's three worst finishes this year
have come in Grand Slam events. (He was 15th at the Masters and
20th at the U.S. Open.) Rarely has Woods's swing failed him so
completely as it did at the PGA, in which he ranked 60th in both
fairways hit (46.4%) and greens in regulation (45.8%). Nor was
last month's ballyhooed switch to his old Titleist driver the
panacea he hoped it would be. Woods used the driver 25 times at
Oak Hill, hitting only 10 fairways.
Suffice it to say, this was not the implacable, imperturbable,
never-let-'em-see-you-sweat Tiger of old. Having started on
Thursday on number 10, he was two over when he came to the 7th
tee. After slicing his drive, he walked to where his ball was
buried in the rough and, without lining up the shot or taking a
practice swing, slapped his ball back into the fairway and
disgustedly flipped his wedge in Williams's direction. He
conceded throughout the week that he was having trouble trusting
his swing, and he curtly blew off reporters after the first two
rounds. Perhaps most surprising, Tiger never once visited the
practice range after he was done playing. "I've been so
frustrated," he said on Saturday when asked why he hadn't
practiced. "I'd rather go home and relax, go for a run, work out
and hope to feel good the next day."
The frustration with his game isn't the only troublesome sign for
Woods these days. Each time a major concludes without Tiger
hoisting a trophy, his rivals grow more confident that he can be
beaten, and they are starting to talk more brazenly about having
closed the gap. "I think the other players have picked up their
games," says Masters champion Mike Weir, who finished tied for
third at the U.S. Open and tied for seventh last week.
If anything, Woods has shown this year that the other players
have gotten into his head. That was the real revelation of
Drivergate, the brouhaha that erupted when Woods said he believed
some players were using illegal drivers, speeding the Tour's
decision to institute a voluntary testing policy for 2004.
Woods's ability to bomb his tee ball past other players' used to
be a major psychological and tactical advantage, and it clearly
irks him that now he's playing catch-up. Tiger has dropped to
16th in driving distance this year (he was sixth last season),
and he is 135th in driving accuracy.
Woods's competitors are indulging in a bit of schadenfreude in
the wake of his driver switch. It is hardly uncommon for players
to tinker with their equipment, but it is often seen as the sign
of a struggling soul desperately searching for answers. "To me,
his switching drivers said a lot," Tom Lehman says. "There are
times in your career when you get into little ruts, and it seems
that right now Tiger's having difficulty putting the ball in
Woods would love nothing more than to grind his way out of his
little funk in anonymity, but he gave up on that notion a long
time ago. Still, he makes every effort to shut out the throngs
who watch his every move. The day before the PGA started, as is
his routine, Woods finished his practice round and left Oak Hill
by 9 a.m., well before most spectators had arrived. During his
second round, Woods stopped and glowered at a man who had the
audacity to pat him on the back after he hit a miraculous
recovery shot from the trees left of the 8th fairway. He rarely
makes eye contact with the gallery during his rounds, and he
almost never signs autographs when he has finished playing. "It's
great to get the respect from the fans, but I still feel
uncomfortable when that many eyes are looking at me," Woods says.
"It feels a little awkward sometimes."
Whether he welcomes it or not, all eyes will be on Woods when he
tees it up in the majors next year, and despite his so-called
slump, he will be a favorite to win each time. Woods, however,
will be competing not only against his peers but also against the
specter of his former self, a distinctly unsympathetic figure who
once seemed unbeatable. As Furyk put it last week, "It's a shame
people say Tiger has had a bad year, because that's not the case.
He's become a victim of his own success."
Tiger, a victim? Say it ain't so.
I knew I was going to get a bad break on every shot."