A caddie controversy, suspect swing changes, mysteriously missed putts and a finish far off the lead. Tiger Woods's comeback sure is getting complicated
This is an article from the Aug. 15, 2011 issue
Poor Tiger. Last week was the first stop on his latest Fresh Start Tour, this time in Akron. It was no garden party. He looked great. He said he had no pain. He played four straight days for the first time since the Masters. But his driver was erratic and so was his putter, and the caddie he fired last month, Steve Williams, won with his new boss, Adam Scott. Life is filled with hurt.
Not only does Scott have Woods's old caddie, he also has Woods's old swing. For rhythm and extension and balance, Adam Scott in 2011 looks pretty similar to Tiger Woods in 2000. (Butch Harmon started working with both of them as teenagers.) On Sunday night, Scott and Williams were jetting their way to Atlanta for this week's PGA Championship. Woods, meanwhile, was postponing his PGA press conference by a day and trying to figure out which putter—the Cameron or the Nike—would get the nod for round one in the year's final major. Woods is looking for his 15th major title and his first since the '08 U.S. Open. Scott is looking for his first major, period. But who would you rather be right now?
Tiger used to own six o'clock on Sunday nights. Last week he was long gone from Firestone Country Club at golf's coronation hour, having put the final touches on his 37th-place finish hours earlier. Near the tournament's finale, the folks ringing the 18th green—raised, like all good Ohioans, on football—were on their feet for Scott, an Australian who looks like a movie star, has a self-deprecating sense of humor and is nice to reporters and other small animals. (Thankfully, he needs that clunky-looking broomstick putter or the whole thing would be simply too much.) The fans were standing for Scott, but they were chanting for his caddie: STEE-vee WILL-yums, STEE-vee WILL-yums. The hulking New Zealander, with his white sideburns and linebacker's back, suppressed a smile and raised an arm in appreciation.
No p.r. firm could turn around a man's reputation so quickly. For the last 12 years, during which he and Woods won 62 times including 13 major championships, Williams was respected but widely resented, too. He ran his mouth more than once, most famously dissing the game's most popular player, Phil Mickelson, in a 2008 interview. (Not classy.) Williams threw a fan's camera into a pond. (At a Skins Game? That's dumb.) He annoyed tournament sponsors by always removing his logo-stenciled caddie's bib before Woods made his winning putts. (What's the Kiwi word for chutzpah?) But Williams worked hard and did a good job for his man, and for his efforts Tiger fired him. That didn't play well anywhere in America, and especially not in an old union town like Akron, where Williams has now been on the winning team eight times.
Williams says he has won 145 golf events, large and small, and that his win with Scott was "the most satisfying win I've ever had." Williams was with Woods when Tiger won the U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000. Woods collapsed in Williams's arms after winning the 2006 British Open 12 weeks after his father died. In at least three of his major victories, Woods credited Williams with talking him into specific shots that helped him win. But winning the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South with Adam Scott was the most satisfying victory of his career? That's amazing. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Williams served it on a hot plate. Maybe when he sits down to write his memoirs he'll remember that it was Woods's otherworldly greatness that helped him become a legendary caddie, a famous New Zealand race car driver, a multimillionaire and a philanthropist.
On the final green in Akron, Scott holed his birdie putt to win by four, and within minutes David Feherty of CBS had corralled the winning caddie for an interview. That's the Tiger influence, trickling down.
Last week Woods had a fill-in caddie on his bag, Bryon Bell, a high school friend who works for Woods's largely dormant course-design company. Bell carried the yardage book, but Woods had his own pin placement sheet in his front left pocket. Woods said that he was struggling to adjust to how far the ball was going and how little it was curving. We ordinary duffers cannot relate, but a good veteran caddie would have helped Woods correct those problems on the course. Last Saturday on 16, a monster par-5, Woods's third shot from 71 yards with a wedge went 15 yards too far. Something went wrong there.
It's hard to keep up with all the new things in Woods's life right now. Last week he wore spikeless golf shoes for the first time, white Nikes (for the first three rounds) with thick rubber soles that looked like something an overnight nurse would wear. He has left Isleworth, the gated development near Orlando where he's lived since turning pro in 1996, and now lives in his new oceanfront mansion in Hobe Sound, Fla. Woods—with his agent, Mark Steinberg—has departed from IMG, the agency that had represented him his whole career, and is now at a firm called Excel Sports. Woods doesn't have a sponsor for his golf bag. He's searching for a full-time caddie. He's only been with his new swing coach, Sean Foley, for 12 months, and last week Woods said that he's having a hard time trusting his new, more upright swing. Woods is a bachelor again, a divorcee with two young children. He's an exceedingly private man who must adjust to the uncomfortable fact that the whole world knows way too much about his personal life. A Canadian doctor who treated Woods in Florida pleaded guilty recently to smuggling HGH into the country and is cooperating with federal authorities before sentencing. Woods can't get his golf ball to follow basic instructions. He misses short putts. (In 2008, Woods made 148 of 151 putts from within five feet, a rate of 98%.) Injuries kept Woods out of the U.S. and British Opens, and he hasn't even secured a spot in the FedEx Cup playoffs. The Kiwi bird headcover, perched for years on Tiger's three-wood and a nod to Williams, is gone. Woods doesn't talk to Charles Barkley anymore, and he doesn't see much of his friend Mark O'Meara, either. As for his friendship with Williams, it looks as if that might be over too. Each was in the other's wedding, but last week they didn't even talk. This adult thing is way complicated, isn't it? Calling Peter Pan.
Last week Woods volunteered to play on Fred Couples's Presidents Cup team as a captain's pick. (And Couples said he wants him.) In the past Tiger has never shown much interest in playing golf for free, but now it's almost as if he's starting over. He was on the sideline for almost three months until he reemerged at Firestone, on a course where he is collectively 91 under par over 56 career rounds, a course where he has won $8,346,775. He said upon arrival that he was there to win. Of course he was. That's been Tiger's credo his entire career, and that's what he has done. Until recently.
He's played in 19 PGA Tour events since Thanksgiving 2009. He has three fourth-place finishes in majors but didn't contend in any of the other 16 events. How into it can he be? He was asked about Williams last week, and he'll be asked about him again this week. In Akron, Woods said, "I thought it was time for a change. He has helped my career, and I think I've helped his as well." After 12 years with the man, reporters were almost begging for Woods to share something warm and human about his time with Williams, but Woods couldn't do it. The public Woods is not built for that. At Firestone, Woods and Williams were sending out different versions of the firing story, Williams maintaining it was over the phone and Woods that it was done in person. The reality is that it was a long time coming. Ever since the Woods scandal broke, there has been no on-course warmth or chemistry between the player and his caddie. Last week with Scott, Williams was all animated again. At times with Bell, Woods was too.
On Saturday afternoon, after a long practice session, Woods and Bell headed to Tiger's courtesy car together. They have a shared history, much of it sweet and innocent, like the day in 1994, when Tiger shot a 62 while winning the Southern California Amateur at Hacienda Golf Club, hitting it all over the map but holing everything. Bell was on the bag that day. Last Saturday afternoon Woods changed his shoes while standing on the hot macadam of the Firestone parking lot and then he and Bell headed back to the hotel, driving past small lawns first seeded by blue-collar prosperity, a world not so different from the one Woods knew growing up in Cypress, in Southern California. Woods was wearing his Nike baseball cap backward, as he used to, back in the day, when that look was new, when his life was not so complicated.
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