The Loop

It takes just seven holes for Tiger to crash back to earth

August 11, 2012

KIAWAH ISLAND,  S.C. -- Tiger is done.


Sing a soft song, killing him gently.

We loved Tiger 1.0. We've been waiting for Tiger 2.0.

Not happening. Not now, not next month, not ever.

Oh, he can play. He can play brilliantly. So can a couple dozen other men.

On his A game, he can win. But there's a difference between now and back in the day. Now he can lose with his A game. Just another guy who can win.

Saturday afternoon, before clouds suggestive of Armageddon gathered over Kiawah Island and stopped play in the PGA Championship, Tiger began the day tied for the tournament lead. For two days, he had played well, showing grit and guile and a sure putting stroke. He had teased us at this summer's U.S. Open, tied for the lead after 36, only to come undone in the third round. This time, at Kiawah, he seemed ready to finish the job.

But no. On a day when the leader boards ran red with birdies -- three 67s already in, six guys with 32s on the front -- Tiger didn't make a birdie in his seven holes. He nearly came out of shoes slashing at a shot in the rough. Another time, the ball below his feet in a waste area, he stood on a berm, half-crouched to reach the ball, and tottered off-balance after an awkward swing. Once the most elegant of movers, Tiger this day resembled nothing more than a wire-walker in a high wind.

He last won a major in 2008. He's oh for 17 since -- since the hydrant and Elin and the bimbo eruptions and the bad Achilles and Hank's book and sex rehab and knee rehab and firing Stevie and not getting any damned younger and seeing lesser mortals -- Rory, Graeme, Keegan, Bubba -- win majors while he tried every kind of swing but Jim Furyk's and wondered if he'd ever make another putt when he needed it most.

I remember Tom Watson, early on in Tiger's distress, saying, "Tiger used to have his head empty," meaning it was empty of all things other than golf. "Now," Watson said, "he's got a lot going on." It takes no great imagination to conceive of Tiger's mind as a Rube Goldberg contraption with pulleys and levers and slides and gears all working at the direction of little men shouting over each other: "Hit the stinger. No, a high fade. Wait, wind's up. What's Stevie think?  McIlroy'd be OK if he ever got a haircut. You think we can sell the boat? Ah, hell, let's bag it and go to Perkins."

Maybe all that chatter gets louder during majors. A suggestion of that came on Tuesday of this week at a pre-tournament press conference. Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press asked Tiger, "Is it harder for you to win a major than it was 10 years ago?"

"Is it harder?" Tiger said. "Well, I haven't won one, so probably."

Certainly, he had won a major in the last 10 years -- he'd won eight. But the 0-for-17 streak must have been in the front of his mind.

Ferguson said, "I don't know if you heard it clearly. Is it harder than it was 10 years ago?"

"Oh, 10 years ago?" Woods said. "Yeah ..." And he said there were more players with a chance to win, greater depth, yadda yadda.

I came into Saturday afternoon thinking Tiger could win this time. It would be his 15th major, it would jump-start his chase of Jack Nicklaus's 18. He would be all over the teevee Sunday, every shot, every scowl, and, perhaps (cover the dog's ears), every oath uttered in protest of fate's unkindness.

For whatever you think of Tiger -- you may hope he commits a Calc Shank at the 17th and throws himself in the lake after it . . . you may wish him the triumphant creation of Tiger 2.0  -- whatever your antipathy or devotion, I reckoned Tiger would be the Sunday story.

You don't have to be 85 years old to understand that. But if you are 85 and you're Bob Toski, a guy ought to ask you about Tiger. Maybe three hours before Woods teed off Saturday, I turned a corner in the Kiawah clubhouse and bumped into a little man in a Hogan cap.

"Sorry," I said, and then realized I'd bumped into Golf History Its Ownself.

"Mr. Toski! Could I talk to you about Tiger?"

Bob Toski, once a caddie and one of nine children of Polish immigrants, turned pro in 1949. He won five PGA Tour events. He was the tour's leading money winner in1954 ($65,820).  He was out there with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and the kid Arnold Palmer. He retired from the tour at age 30 to begin a teaching career that became legendary.

For all that, he said, he has never seen anything in golf to match Tiger Woods.

"He has been given a gift of talent that no man before or after ever had," Toski said. "What Michael Jordan had in basketball and Ted Williams in baseball, Tiger has that in golf. He has an intuitive and instinctive feel for the game, which, along with his mastery of the mechanics, and his athletic strengths make him unique for all time."

Yes, yes.  But we haven't seen that Tiger for a while.

"Did you see the 11th yesterday?" Toski said.

At the 11th on Friday, from a downhill line 165 yards out, Woods punched a low cut shot that landed on the left half of the green and rolled to the right, stopping six feet from a flagstick only four steps from water on the green's right side.

"How many guys," Toski said, eyes alight, "even try that shot?"

Not many, maybe only Tiger.

"He's a shotmaker. Think about it. How many of his shots do we still talk about?"

The long-iron bunker shot over water in Canada. The last-roll chip at Augusta. This summer's flop shot at the Memorial.

A case can be made that the majors stand on their own, their measure fuller than any one man can provide. Keegan Bradley at the PGA, Bubba Watson at the Masters, Ernie Els the British -- Tiger was there for all of them and was rendered a bit player by those heroes.  Toski, though, isn't buying that case.

"Tiger's presence changes everything," he said. "Arnold Palmer came along in my time -- the All-American boy. Now we have Tiger. He's, well, a different character, but he certainly has had the same kind of impact on the game as Arnold did. Any time Tiger's in a tournament, he's the focus. Good or bad."

I asked the wise old man -- thinking of the Watson allusion -- if it were possible for Tiger to get his head right again.

"It's terrible, what happened in his marriage, and I hope he recovers," Toski said. "He does seem to be getting better, professionally and personally. Maybe this is the week."

Or maybe not.