SAN FRANCISCO -- Let's start with this premise: Golf is a difficult game, comprised of skills that are rented and never owned. What works one day, one hole, one shot, is not always there the next time you need it. That's why we love the game. The challenge is special and constant, a journey not a destination.
Scoring is all about being able to repeat the swing, especially under pressure, and it's about eliminating doubt when committing to a shot. That commitment, that belief, was never a problem for Tiger Woods for so many years. When it came to confidence, Woods had cornered the market.
Years of success at every level of play had built up in Tiger a mindset of domination. But after his stumbling finish Sunday in the U.S. Open, playing the weekend eight over par, there is reason to question the mental aspect of Woods' game.
While Woods is much more comfortable with the mechanics of his Sean Foley swing, no longer appearing to be going through a mental to-do list before each shot, he seems to be fighting doubt, and as the week went on at Olympic Club, he was losing more and more of those fights.
When Tiger won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March -- his seventh victory at Bay Hill -- many thought he had turned a corner on the road back to domination. Then he finished T-40 at the Masters, missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship and was T-40 at the Players. Confidence came and went just like that.
His victory at the Memorial provided new reason to think he might be on the way back. Unlike at Bay Hill, Woods was pressured on the back nine Sunday and birdied three of the last four holes. But like Bay Hill, Muirfieid Village is a course Tiger can play in his sleep, having won there five times. He still had more to prove.
The real test, it seemed, would come when Woods took his game to San Francisco and tested it under U.S. Open conditions. For two days, he breezed through the exam with a 69 and a 70. Then it was as if he had lost his study guide. His 75 on Saturday, in which he played the last three holes two-over par, was exceeded by only eight of the other 71 players in the field. And on Sunday it was just ugly, as he had to rally for a 73.
"There were a lot of positives this week, a lot of positives," Woods said after his round Sunday, sounding very much like a man trying to convince himself that there were a lot of positives.
Woods drove the ball extremely well on Thursday, but the overall quality of his game deteriorated with each round. It was as if as the pressure of the competition increased, his belief in his ability to get the job done decreased. Of course, this is something few athletes would ever admit -- especially Woods.
Also problematic for Woods is that his game from inside 150 yards is nowhere near as sharp as it once was. On consecutive days, while still in contention, he missed the green on No. 18 with a wedge in his hand. That ragged play with his scoring clubs has been the rule rather than the exception for Woods of late.
On Sunday, with an outside chance to overcome a five-stroke deficit and win his first major championship in four years, Woods missed the first fairway with a 3-wood, had to lay up on the 532-yard par-4 and made a bogey. On the next hole, he missed the green into the back bunker and made another bogey.
Any doubt about how the day would go was erased on No. 3 when he made a double bogey on the par 3. He played the treacherous opening six holes six-over par. Then, almost as if relaxed now that he was past the stretch that played a combined 1,109 over par for the week, Woods handled the last 12 holes three-under par.
The Old Tiger would start a major with solid rounds, put the hammer down on Saturday to take control of the tournament and then close like Secretariat on Sunday. Woods was positioned to do that at Olympic Club, but when the bell rang for the final two rounds his form abandoned him.
With each major that slips by for Woods, who turns 37 in December and has a had physical issues with his left knee and both Achilles tendons, achieving his stated goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors becomes more doubtful. And with each disappointment there is another brick missing in the wall that was his rock-solid belief system.
Since winning the last of his 14 major championships at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods has gone 0-for-12 with a half-dozen top-six finishes -- opportunities to win that he failed to capitalize upon. The only time Nicklaus went as long between majors was the gap from No. 17 in 1980 to No. 18 at the 1986 Masters.
Where does Woods go from here? Well, in terms of his schedule he'll compete next at the AT&T National at Congressional CC beginning June 28, then it will be the Greenbrier Classic the next week followed by his next shot at major No. 15 at the British Open on Royal Lytham St. Anne July 19-22.
But where does he go in terms of his game? That is the real question. Right now, Woods is an enormously-skilled guy facing the same doubts every other guy on tour has about performing when it matters most. This is a place Tiger has never visited before and it is the greatest challenge of his career -- no doubt.
And that's exactly what he needs: no doubt.
-- Ron Sirak