Around seven o'clock last Friday night, in the waning light, with the cool Wisconsin air announcing the arrival of football season, there, on the far end of the practice tee at Whistling Straits, was a rare and exquisite site: Tiger Woods all alone. ¬∂ No IMG guys around. No Nike guys, either. No Marko. No Hank Haney, his secret swing helper. Certainly no Butch. No uniformed troopers. No reporters, no cameramen. No Tida, no Elin. No Earl. No Stevie, who was off getting another bucket of balls. ¬∂ It was just Tiger, his golf bag, his driver and his thoughts. He had just--let's be plain here--golfed his ass off to make the 36-hole cut. He has said this many times, and you know it's true because you've seen it again and again: He never quits. On the back nine earlier that day, he had needed two birdies and no mistakes to make the cut on the number. He made three birdies and no mistakes.
Woods is not supposed to require his best stuff simply to qualify for weekend play, but that's what happens when you're no longer the master of your golf ball or your universe. Now he was wearing out his driver, the new one with the electric-blue graphite shaft. Frank, the talking headcover, was sandwiched facedown amid the shiny irons stamped TW.
It's hard to know what's going on in Tiger's head these days. His press conferences traditionally have been little more than an acting exercise, and if you've seen Woods as Frank's straight man or reprising the role of Carl from Caddyshack or doing an M. Night turn for Buick, you know how superb his acting is. Then came last week.
He arrived at the PGA Championship with no stroke-play victories for the year and without a major title since June 2002. During his streak of nine straight majors without a win his mantra all the while was, "I'm close." He'd hit tee shots half a football field off-line, but he was close. Then, at Whistling Straits, two days before the start of the championship, Woods was asked if his confidence level is different now than it was in 2000, the year he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots, the British Open at St. Andrews by eight and the PGA at Valhalla in a playoff over Bob May.
"Oh, certainly," Woods said in a burst of unexpected candor. Suddenly he wasn't acting. It was as if the truth serum had kicked in. "I haven't been hitting the ball quite as close to flags. I haven't been making as many putts."
He was asked how a player overcomes self-doubt. "You keep playing," Woods said. "You just play. Every one of us has moments where we have doubts, and we have to overcome them. That's part of the game. That's part of sport."
In the recovery movement they say a person cannot help himself until he admits he has a problem. Maybe last week at the PGA, as his majorless streak stretched to 10 with his 24th-place finish at two under par, Woods reached that point. Last Saturday he spent 21/2 hours on the range before his tee time. He wasn't punishing himself. He was trying to play his way out of his--yes, this is the word--slump.
Whether he can return to his dominant form alone or with the help of Haney, the Texas coach who works with Woods's friend Mark O'Meara, or whether he can get back at all is golf's biggest mystery. Last week O'Meara had Haney caddie for him, and as Woods and O'Meara played their early-morning practice rounds together, Haney took notes on both of them. You can see the Haney and O'Meara influence in Tiger's swing, but the changes mean little. Woods won his first major, in 1997 at Augusta, with a swing that required him to manipulate his hands far more than the lethally efficient swing he used in 2000. Yet he won that '97 Masters by 12 shots. His motivation then was a phrase his father had given him: Let the legend grow. It compensated well for minuscule swing flaws.
It is entirely possible that Woods's great run is over. Six years of dominating golf as an amateur followed by another six or so as a pro is an eon, given the intensity with which Woods pursued golf and the scrutiny he's been under the whole while.
He's a different person now. He likely has way north of $100 million in the bank. He's engaged to a stop-staring-at-her Swede. He'll turn 30 next year. Butch Harmon, his longtime teacher, was cut out of the camp at least two years ago. Woods's father, who has heart and other health issues, is seldom at tournaments anymore. Once it seemed that much of Woods's motivation came from being Earl's son, from being a person of color in a white sport. Whoever thinks of Woods as a minority anymore? Then there's his status in the game. Yes, he's 10 short of Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 career majors, but as a mythic figure Woods has already surpassed his idol.
It wasn't really Ernie and Phil and Vijay who narrowed the gap with Tiger. Woods did most of the heavy lifting. The formula that determines the ranking of the world's best players is obviously flawed, too weighted for old accomplishments. Based on the past year, Els, Mickelson and Singh should all be ahead of Woods. Woods has now made the cut in 129 straight starts, considered a record by the PGA Tour. He has been the No. 1 player in the World Ranking for 332 weeks, also a record. He was asked which meant more to him. "The cut streak," Woods said. He answered so quickly you had the feeling he must have been telling the truth. "Who cares about Number 1?"
Swing problems show up most in the driver. Head problems show up most with the putter, and during Tiger's slump usually one or the other has been giving him fits. Last week it was some of both. He putted poorly during his opening-round 75. On Friday, when he shot 69, he hit one drive 60 yards off-line and into a pond. Later, at the 501-yard par-4 15th, he faced a hole at which he would have usually smashed a cut driver (as his playing partners John Daly and Singh did) if he could have trusted his big, blue-shafted club. But he was playing to make the cut. He grabbed his three-wood. Singh did not watch. He sometimes stared at Lake Michigan as Woods played his shots. It was another example of bad manners on Singh's part--you should always be prepared to signal where your fellow competitor's ball is going--but maybe a good strategy for him. For years Woods owned Singh when they played together. Not last week, and maybe not anymore.
Here's what Woods has going for him: talent, strength, desire and intelligence. Missing at the moment is his confidence and, it would seem, a coherent game plan. Drawing one up will not be easy. He's in a place no golfer has ever been before.
Woods came off the practice tee at 7:30 Friday night and walked right by Harmon, who, when he saw Woods out of the corner of his eye, gave him a big smile, a thumb's up and congratulated him on making another cut. Woods did not break stride and barely acknowledged him. Those two are not getting back together.
Harmon is the son of a celebrated pro, served in Vietnam and has known both lean and fat times. He has led a life. One of his principles is that everybody needs somebody who can say, You need to be working on this. "I was that person in Tiger's life," Harmon says. "If Tiger has somebody like that in his life now, I don't know who it is." He's not the only one.
THE RACE FOR NO. 1
ACCORDING TO pro golf's measuring stick, the World Ranking, Tiger Woods has been the best player in the world for a record 332 weeks, but Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have closed the gap so much that Woods could now lose the title at almost any time. Here's how the Fab Four have fared since the 24th week of the 2002 season, when Woods last won a major.
CURRENT RANK: 1ST
CURRENT RANK: 4TH
CURRENT RANK: 3RD
CURRENT RANK: 2ND