I based my column in this week’s Monterey County Herald on something SI.com’s Joe Posnanski wrote Sunday night about Tiger Woods. Posnanski is my favorite sports writer on any topic. He can even made NASCAR palatable for me. But Posnanski especially hits home when he hones in on Woods. After watching Woods finish an irrelevant 23rd at the British Open, Posnanski ponders the question why we still expect so much out of the world’s No. 1 player. Why are we afraid to say that he can’t win?
History suggests that we have reached the end of the Woods era.
It seems like such an abrupt end. Two years ago, Woods was off to such a dominating start, he had us wondering about the improbability of an undefeated season. He was so unstoppable, he won the U.S. Open on a broken leg. He returned last year and won six times on the PGA Tour, and he was being handed his 15th major Saturday night after leading Y.E. Yang by two at the PGA Championship.
But then we saw a rattled Woods lose a major for the first time in 15 tries when holding a 54-hole lead, and Yang not only chased him down, but he won by three.
Three months later his personal life blew up like Jean Van de Velde playing the 18th hole at Carnoustie, and we are still trying to figure out how much that wreckage is affecting his play this year.
Woods is 0-for-7 in tournaments this year, with no finish better than fourth. He’s also whiffed on seven straight majors, including three of his favorite courses in a row. His season stats are middling, as the eight-time Vardon winner ninth in scoring average, 91st in both greens in regulation percentage and putting, and 71st on the money list.
Does he just need more time while he wades through a public divorce, as his media mouthpiece Notay Begay insists? Or is this the new reality? Posnanski starts the this-is-the-new-reality bandwagon:
I realized that my issue was this: As far as I can tell NOBODY is writing off Tiger Woods. And, frankly, by all the available evidence, we SHOULD be writing off Tiger Woods.
Look: Tiger Woods, by his standards, has played stunningly mediocre golf this year after taking off a few months to deal with his personal issues. He has not won a tournament — entering the British Open he was zero-for-six. This might not sound like much, but Tiger Woods only plays in the tournaments he expects to win. This year marks the first time since 1998 that he has not won one of his first six tournaments of the year.
Anyway, it wasn’t just that he didn’t win, but that he never came close to winning. He missed the cut in Charlotte, at one of his favorite events. He withdrew from the Players Championship with some sort of neck thing that he has barely mentioned since. He finished an uninspired 19th at Jack Nicklaus’ tournament in Columbus. He played stunningly bad and unfocused golf in finishing 46th as defending champ of the AT&T National.
Yes, people will point out that he finished fourth at both the Masters and the U.S. Open, and he did — nobody suggests that Tiger Woods will turn into a 12-handicapper. But even those fourth-place finishes said something was wrong… he was never really a Sunday threat to win either tournament, even though Augusta National and Pebble Beach are two of his favorite golf courses, places he was meant to dominate. Even two or three years ago, people pointed to 2010 as the year for a potential Tiger Woods grand slam because of those golf courses. Finishing fourth at Augusta (where he has won four times and set the course record) and Pebble Beach (where he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots) is hardly a sign that Tiger Woods is playing well enough.
Woods is 34, but his body is probably older. He turned pro 14 years ago, he’s had several knee problems, and who knows when this neck injury might or might not resurface. His body is definitely showing signs of breaking down, like an aging slugger in baseball. Woods turns 35 at the end of the year.
Yes, players such as Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker, Kenny Perry and Vijay Singh have resurfaced as they neared and hit their 40s, but they haven’t been racking up majors. Posnanski pulls this interesting stat:
Since 1970, the average age of major championship winners is 32, and things tumble off for golfers after age 35. Fewer than a quarter of the major championship winners have been 36 or older. The only players since 1970 to win multiple majors after turning 36 are: Jack Nicklaus (4), Gary Player (4), Ray Floyd (2), Nick Price (2), Vijay Singh (2), Mark O’Meara (2), Angel Cabrera (2), Padraig Harrington (2).
Mickelson has only won once after turning 36 — at this year’s Masters. As we know, Woods needs four major to tie Nicklaus’ record of 18. That doesn’t sound like a lot considering Woods once won four in a row, but that’s also the career total of the second best player of his era — Mickelson.
But this is the big stat for me that hammers home that we are going to see a much different Woods from here on out.
Bobby Jones won all 13 of his majors from 1923-1930. Ben Hogan won all nine of his majors from 1946-1953. Tom Watson won all eight of his majors from 1975- 1983. Sam Snead won all seven of his majors from 1946-1954. Arnold Palmer won all seven of his majors from 1958-1964.
Woods won 14 majors from 1997-2008. That’s a long time to dominate. Of course, Nicklaus is the great exception, but based on his meandering march to 18 majors, Woods could be trying to catch him for a decade — or more.
Nicklaus won four majors after turning 36, which is the same number Woods needs to reach. But it took Nicklaus another five years to get from his 14th major to his 17th, and another six after that to win the Masters as a 46-year-old.
Is Woods ready to hang in there for another decade — or more — on the road, hiding from fans, battling the media and hunting for the record major that, as history shows, might never come?
[AP Photo/Jon Super]