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Original Issue

The Rewards of A Toothless Tiger

With a wayward Woods all but abdicating the throne, golf is back to fascinating uncertainty

The myth is that the Tiger Woods Era ended last Nov. 27, when the golfing great/mortal man ran over a fire hydrant, a mishap that landed him in a Florida hospital for a few hours and on the front page of the New York Post for 20 consecutive days. The truth is that the TWE ended with millions of eyes on him exactly one year ago, on Aug. 16, 2009, in Chaska, Minn., at the Hazeltine National Golf Club. That's the day Woods entered the final round of the PGA Championship with a two-shot lead over a Korean golfer named Y.E. Yang, then ranked 110th in the world. Woods, the best putter ever, had a lousy day on the greens (33 swipes). Yang won. Tiger's knack with the flat stick has been AWOL ever since.

Last week, at the Bridgestone Invitational, Woods was hitting it left and right and skanking it around. The driver was especially crooked. Tiger can win, hitting it like that, but not without his short game. He shot rounds of 74, 72, 75 and 77. Of those 298 strokes, 118, outrageously high for him, were putts. Among the 80 finishers, in putts per hole, Woods ranked 56th for the week. (He was 77th in greens in regulation and tied for last in driving accuracy.) He beat only Henrik Stenson. This was on a course, at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, where he had won seven times in 10 previous visits. At his most dominant, a decade ago, the guys chasing Woods—Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, David Duval—all thought the same thing: If I could putt like Tiger Woods, I could win once a month too.

Even after his worst week ever, Woods remained No. 1 in the World Ranking, but only because No. 2 Phil Mickelson blew his opportunity to supplant him with a final-round 78, which dropped him to a tie for 46th on the week. This week, at the year's final major, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., Mickelson, in keeping with tournament tradition, will play the first two rounds with the year's two other major winners, Graeme McDowell (U.S. Open) and Louis Oosthuizen (British Open). Meanwhile, the world's still-best golfer (according to a computer) will go off with Messrs. Singh and Yang. (More Yang? That's cruel.) In your better betting parlors during golf's four holy weeks, you can get action picking the low man in any threesome. For a decade or more Tiger was the ultimate no-brainer. Those days are over. In the opening round of the PGA would it surprise you if Yang shot a lower score than Woods?

The network bosses despise parity, obscure winners, Tiger's not being in the mix. Tiger is golf's LeBron, its Yankees, its Lady Gaga. He guarantees ratings. But for golf purists, this post-TWE makes tournament golf infinitely more interesting. Back in the day, pre-Tiger, you didn't know which player was going to win golf's biggest events ahead of time, and that unpredictability made it fun. Jack Nicklaus became Jack Nicklaus not only because he won 18 majors but also because he beat and got beat by Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and scads of others. Sundays were Mystery Theatre.

Woods hasn't won a major since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, in a playoff against Rocco Mediate with his body falling apart. It was Tiger's 14th major win, and it was epic. Before the fourth round at Hazeltine a year ago, professional Tiger-watchers were cooking up an audacious plan to get Woods even with Nicklaus at 18: the victory over Yang (a given), followed by three straight major wins in '10 at three courses on which Woods has dominated: Augusta, Pebble, the Old Course. The Tiger Slam, Part II. Now it sounds like crazy talk.

Woods is 34, and he's been pursuing this golf thing with unmatched intensity for well over 20 years. Have you ever seen his eyes in person? He always looks tired, these days more than ever. Great putting takes mechanical excellence, which can be taught, along with a variety of ephemerals you're more likely to find in an ashram in India than on a putting green in Florida: confidence, will, heart, intensity, enthusiasm, faith. Where can Woods go to find all that?

So Woods, who is not even a lock to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the Oct. 1--3 matches at Celtic Manor in Wales, is stuck on 14. Before 8/16/09 he was 14 for 14 when he had a Sunday lead in a major. He was perfect. He had the perfect physique, the perfect wife, the perfect swing, the perfect putting stroke. It must get heavy, carrying around all that perfection.

Years ago, after Woods gave yet another Sunday smackdown to another of his chasers—in this instance, Davis Love III—Tida Woods, Tiger's Thai-born mother, said, "Tiger steal his heart."

A year ago Y.E. Yang, of all people, did the same to Tiger. He's been looking for it ever since.

Now on

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Great putting takes confidence, will, heart, intensity, enthusiasm, faith. WHERE CAN WOODS GO to find all that?