Tiger, Tiger, Burning Out?

October 04, 2009

The afternoonshadows were playing tricks on Tiger Woods's Sunday image. True, his unbuffpeers hashed around with bodies as slim as flag pins and paunches likelowercase b's as Tiger strode among them with a silhouette built to intimidate:a muscular V-shaped back that made him a walking victory sign. Yet it was Tigerwho seemed vulnerable. He had, of course, worn his customary red, but he lookedmore bloodshot than menacing, and he mustered only a 10-watt charge while PhilMickelson rediscovered the putting stroke of his youth and took the TourChampionship at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club. In an awkward awards ceremony,Phil and Tiger stood on the 18th green together as frenemies. Phil held up thecrystal trophy for the tournament title, while Tiger squirreled away a $10million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup, the season-ending prize for cumulativeeffort (six Tour wins in Tiger's case). But without a major circled on it,isn't Tiger's calendar missing something?

This year provedthat Tiger could dominate a season without doing Jack. He can bully his waythrough the whistle-stops on the PGA Tour and not gain ground on Nicklaus'srecord of 18 majors. And though Tiger has rationalized his '09performance—repeatedly saying how proud he is of his consistency—being stalledat 14 majors must blow his beautiful mind. There is no arguing his genius. AsAlbert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important thanknowledge," and Tiger has both. He has the ability to see trajectories andangles no one else sees, in the way that Annie Leibovitz envisions a tub ofmilk as a photo prop or Dick Fosbury saw a flop as a better way to jump.

But does Tiger'sblend of physicality and intellect mean 19 majors? "Tiger needs someone topush him at this stage," says Padraig Harrington. "If I can get better,maybe I can push him." Still, Harrington adds, "I do believe he'll getthere. Nothing is a given, but he is playing better than he has been. Heaverages one [major] a year, so...."

So, it's a donedeal, right? Well, here is why Tiger will not make it past Jack (really): TheMike Douglas Show Effect: If he continues to win one major a year, Tiger willbe 38 when he reaches No. 19. He is already a 33-year-old with heavy miles on abandwagon that began to roll when he was a two-year-old lashing drives onnational TV. Tiger has outlasted your average child star—lapping everyone fromDanny Bonaduce to Freddy Adu—but isn't there an inevitable expiration date onprodigies? Jack took up golf at age 10. Whereas he swung aggressively into his40s from industrial-size thighs, Tiger lashes with pec power that has, over theyears, put a serious burden on his fragile knees.

The PersistentFlaw: For better and worse, Tiger is more stubborn than grass stains, holdinggrudges as motivational keepsakes (good tactic) but sticking with outdatedequipment while other options might've been better (bad call). When histolerance for the chatty Butch Harmon snapped, the intractable Tiger suffered aself-inflicted destiny interruptus. With Harmon, Tiger conjured eight majorsfrom '97 through '02. Without him, he experienced a 10-major drought at hisphysical peak—precious time lost on the Jack trail. Tiger wanted to own hisswing, to lift the hood on his mechanics in mid-round, and he turned to HankHaney. Yes, Tiger can play Mr. Fix-It with his drives, and Haney won't violatethe secret code of his boss's inner circle, but Tiger doesn't win majors bydouble digits anymore, clubbing down on his own fear factor, and that makeslife easier for the competition.

The PatriotsSyndrome: Only misery awaits anyone (or any team) attempting to break recordsthought to be unattainable, particularly in a 24/7 news cycle. The questioningstarts as an are-we-there-yet? annoyance and finally snowballs into the kind ofexcruciating, isolating noise that leaves targets feeling as if they've beenlocked in a bell tower. It can make a genius go mad—even one in a hoodie. Bythe time Super Bowl XLII arrived in 2008, Bill Belichick's New England Patriotswere weary from their pursuit of the '72 Dolphins' perfect season, beaten downby the pressure. The run-up to a record doesn't always end with a fizzle.(Roger Maris lost hair but topped Babe Ruth; Roger Federer cried from despairat the Australian Open in February but beat Pete Sampras's Grand Slam number atWimbledon.) Tiger is a control freak's control freak, but not even he will beable to contain the locomotive of expectation should he reach No. 16 or No.17.

Where does it allend? Tiger was at his best this year—off knee surgery, on his game. And yetgallantry and superiority left him with sixth-place ties at the Masters andU.S. Open, a missed cut at the British Open and a second at the PGAChampionship, his first loss in a major after having a 54-hole lead. "Youcan't win them all, but the whole idea is to be there every time," saysTiger. "And if you are there each and every time, just like Jack seemedlike he was, you're going to win your share." Tiger's take-home total hassecured his legacy—both on the course and beyond it—but that doesn't mean itwill add up to Jack.

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This year proved that Tiger could dominate a seasonwithout doing Jack. Being stalled at 14 major titles must blow his beautifulmind.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
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