Tiger Woods Isn’t “Back” (and He Probably Won’t Ever Be Good Again)

So stop asking about it.

If Tiger Woods happens to hit a good drive on the first hole of next month’s British Open, media members will scurry to their computers, smart phones and cameras to proclaim the one-time all-powerful golfer “back.” It will be, of course, wishful thinking, because Woods is not back. And after his Saturday/Sunday meltdown at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, it’s becoming more and more obvious that Woods isn’t coming back.

Face it, golf fans, Woods just isn’t that good anymore.

You saw that on Saturday, when after entering the round as the prohibitive favorite, at least according to cloying media and hopeful USGA propaganda partners, Woods imploded and shot a 75 to fall five strokes behind the leaders and one behind 17-year old amateur Beau Hossler. The trouble began immediately for Woods, when he put his first tee shot into the rough and gave us his best petulant look that said, “Why isn’t everything going my way like it used to?” He went on to bogey four of the first eight holes and looked nothing like a champion.

Sunday was an even better example of his atrophying powers. Woods failed to make par on five of the first six holes and had a double bogey on the par-three third. As he fell further from the lead, it was almost possible to hear NBC executives weeping into their chardonnays. Without the one player on the tour that casual fans will tune in to watch, ratings were no doubt going to sag like Michael Vick’s NFL Network ranking.

It’s easy to understand why TV networks root for Woods. He delivers the mail for them. If he plays well, people watch. When Woods won the Memorial a couple weeks ago, spawning the latest “Is Tiger back?” frenzy, the final day’s TV ratings were up 138% from 2011’s numbers. So, if ESPN or ABC is broadcasting a tournament, you can bet the lead-up will feature multi-platform Tiger-fest that promotes the event, but more importantly tries to convince potential viewers to tune in, because this could be the time when Woods snaps his four-year major drought.

Not.

The fact is that Woods is no longer a great golfer. He is capable of great shots, like the chip on 16 that clinched the Memorial, but he can’t play four rounds of high-pressure major championship golf any more. He proved that at Augusta in April, when he was a respectable five strokes off the lead at the end of day one, only to collapse and finish 15 strokes behind the winner, earning a robust $32,000.

There are many reasons for Woods’ joining the mortals. First off, he has sustained enough injuries to his legs to compromise his game. Once Fred Couples’ back went, he was no longer able to play at a high level. It’s possible Woods’ knee, Achilles (and to a lesser extent) neck maladies have robbed him of the touch that combined with his tremendous strength off the tee to make him so formidable. That’s a huge consideration. Thousands of great performers on the sporting stage have become less effective due to injury.

But there is a psychological component to this, too. Ever since Woods’ meticulously documented breakup with his wife, Elin, the cocoon that allowed him to focus on golf and only golf (with a Perkins House of Pancakes waitress in there, too) has evaporated. Woods is no longer bulletproof. Fans don’t lionize him. Opponents don’t fear him. He’s just another top contender, left to fend for himself. About the only people left at his altar are media and TV executives, who pray for a return to his former greatness in order to boost ratings and interest in the game.

So complete is some of the hero worship that on Saturday, ESPN.com’s Ian O’Connor, a usually sensible man and always an extremely talented writer, blamed Woods’ meltdown on the fact that he played the round with Jim Furyk, a friend. O’Connor opined that had Woods’ been paired with a rival for whom he had significant distaste, say Phil Mickelson, whose 16 over par was even more disastrous than Woods’ performance, Woods would have been able to focus better on his game. So this is what it has come to: people attributing his poor play to friendship?

If Woods crumbles, he does so because he no longer has the physical, mental or emotional toughness. He lacks stamina to play 72 holes of great golf. He has always been a great frontrunner, as evidenced by the fact that he has never come from behind on the last day of a major to win the thing. Now that his skills have diminished, he is an above-average golfer who is capable of momentary glimpses of his former self – and perhaps a complete tourney of magic – but he can no longer conjure consistent greatness.

For years, it seemed inevitable that Woods would surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. In fact, some thought Woods would leave that mark well behind. It ain’t happening, folks. Woods has 14, hardly a total to ridicule, but he won’t get 19. He may not even reach 15. His play Saturday and Sunday at Olympic proved that not only isn’t he back, but he might never get there. He turns 37 this December, and it becomes harder and harder to win big tournaments after that age. Expecting him to take five in the next decade (Nicklaus won his last at age 46) when he hasn’t won one in four years is asking a lot.

So, everybody needs to stop asking when Woods is coming back. It’s not happening. It’s time to find someone new to root for, or if you are a TV executive, to lower your expectations.

The magic is gone.

SUCKER PUNCHES

  • Despite how uneasy the horrific details of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child molest ation that have been revealed during his trial make us feel, it’s absolutely necessary for the courageous testimony of his alleged victims to be heard. Society needs to be more willing to listen when young accusers speak up, and universities around the country need to see how wrong things can go when leaders choose to protect football programs instead of doing the right thing. It’s painful to hear this, but it will make a difference down the road.
  • The Phillies may still make a run at the post-season, but it’s clear after this weekend’s sweep out in Toronto that significant judgment errors were made heading into this season, including–but not limited to–believing chondromalacia can get better, thinking career minor leaguer John Mayberry would become a full-fledged left fielder, trusting a key role in the bullpen to a 40-year old (or so he says) with a bum elbow and becoming convinced that an Achilles rehab takes only seven months.
  • Like it or not, LeBron James is having the kind of great post-season of which only champions and all-time greats are capable. He has scored, rebounded and hit key shots to lead the Heat to a 2-1 advantage in the Finals. And he has done it modestly. James screwed up royally with “The Decision” and silly aftermath, but he is doing it right these days and should finally hoist the trophy.

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