Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the new Tiger played like the old one. Then came the finale. Woods and Phil Mickelson, side by side in the cool seaside gray at Pebble Beach. It had the feel of a British Open Sunday, a U.S. Open Sunday, a televised grudge match. It looked like old times. Phil shot a flawless 64 and won, while Tiger's play was downright messy. After all the health issues Mickelson and his family have dealt with lately, you wanted to give the guy a hug. It was a huge day for Phil. And for Tiger too.
If Saturday on the PGA Tour is Moving Day, Sunday is Doubt Day, when a golfer's frailties are on cruel display. On Sunday, when he needed to go low to win his first Tour event in 29 months, Woods shot 75. His problems now are solely golf-related. He doesn't need lawyers to sift through them.
It felt like a major last week, with Tiger and Phil dominating the CBS coverage, while Phil hogged the commercial breaks. (Woods did not appear in a single spot.) But it wasn't a major. It was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a glorious old Tour stop, but a Tour stop nonetheless. There are scores of them in a season that seems to go on forever. The truth, Tiger Woods would tell you—if you were, say, Tony Romo, his amateur partner at Pebble—is that the real season is short and intense. The Masters in April, the U.S. Open in June, the British in July, the PGA Championship in August. That's it.
Tiger measures his standing in the game by what he does in the four majors. Now more than ever, all his other events are dressed-up time trials. Of course he wanted Clint Eastwood to hand him the winner's crystal on Sunday. It surely chafed him to have to say over and over to Phil some variant of "good one." But Tiger has a map to Augusta in his mind. Pebble was on it, and now his extended spring training continues. He has the Match Play next week in the Arizona desert, and Doral and Bay Hill in Florida in March. He'll be playing to win, for sure. One of his credos is that winning begets winning. But he also believes in the power of baby steps, and he took important ones last week. When he leaves an event without a W but with a hard-earned to-do list, he can live with that. Note to self: Work on three-wood cut shot. On Sunday night Mickelson said of Woods, "He's really close." Phil wasn't blowing smoke. "All it takes is one week." A victory leading up to the Masters would be great for Tiger. But he doesn't need one to collect a fifth green jacket.
The big question in golf is not whether Tiger will win again. He will. The Big Watch for Tiger is how many majors will he win before he's through? It's the same thing golfheads have been asking for 15 years, except now it's being asked with more urgency, because Tiger is a 36-year-old with high mileage.
And yet ... Tiger seems younger now than he has in years. Younger than he did a year ago (swing issues) or in 2010 (marital issues) or in 2009 or '08 (health issues). Welcome back to 2007, Tiger. Buy yourself some Apple stock.
Phil is 41, with four major titles, and his place in the game is secure. He's going into the Hall of Fame in May, and no matter what he does over, say, the next five years he's going down as one of the game's elites. He's not in the penthouse with Jack Nicklaus and Woods. Or one level down with Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan. But he's in a cozy, paneled den with young Tom Morris and old Billy Casper. He's top 25 for sure. If he doesn't do a thing for the rest of 2012, Mickelson has already had a wonderful year. Woods is the one whose standing in the game is unsettled. You may not think that, but he does.
By Tiger's accounting, Nicklaus is the greatest golfer ever for the simple reason that he has won the most majors. "Jack is the greatest golfer who has ever played the game," Woods said last week. "His 18 majors is the goal that every professional aspires to." There are other benchmarks, like Sam Snead's 82 Tour victories, but Woods grew up on the legend of Nicklaus, the golfer and the man, and Woods likes the neatness of the straight count to 18. He has been stuck at 14 since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he won in overtime on one leg.
In the 2009 majors, Woods tied for sixth at the Masters and again at the U.S. Open, missed the cut at the British Open and was chased down by Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship. Then came Thanksgiving, the National Enquirer's spy work and everything else. Since then, Tiger has paid a $164 traffic citation, gone through a divorce, changed caddies and management companies, moved from central to coastal Florida, won an event with an 18-man field, left his swing coach, author Hank Haney, and started up with another, hip-hop enthusiast Sean Foley.
Foley and Woods have a plan to get him unstuck from 14, and Augusta represents Tiger's best chance. He won his fourth Masters in 2005, and in the six playings since has never finished worse than sixth. You can easily close your eyes and imagine Charl Schwartzel, last year's winner, slipping a green jacket over Tiger's shoulders in the dusk light of Easter Sunday.
Tiger's 43L green coat might be a little baggy on him now. You saw him at Pebble Beach. (The TV ratings were through the blimp.) He has shed the cartoonish Michelin Man upper body he had circa 2007. He looks great. He has been playing some beautiful bank shots and stingers and baby fades. He recently shot a 63 in a casual round at Seminole, Hogan's old Florida winter hangout, playing with friends. (Friends!) He's swinging with oceanic rhythm. At the Presidents Cup in November in Australia, where he secured the winning point for the U.S., he wore a silly hat and actually made skin contact with strangers. People in South Florida see him at the Palm Beach Gardens Mall with his two kids. He seems more at peace now than at any time over the past decade. At Pebble he talked admiringly about the sounds made by Phil's pure shots. Even during his horrible putting round on Sunday, Tiger could have been wearing one of those LIFE IS GOOD hats.
All this contentment may be good for his golf—or not. There's no way to know. Tiger has spent most of his life playing with fury. Check out his jawline on some of those famous fist-pump photographs. Also, Tiger alone can't decide where he'll finish in an event. That fear factor thing is so 2002. Mickelson relishes the idea of playing with Woods at Augusta, or anywhere else. So do Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler and all those other kids.
At the Masters, Tiger will almost certainly be on the leader board through three rounds. That's an Augusta perennial and a gift to us. What we don't know is where his head, swing and putting stroke will be on Sunday.
There's an accepted wisdom in golf, promulgated chiefly by Nicklaus and his friend Lee Trevino, that to win at Augusta National you must hit the ball high, so that it stops quickly on her waving-flag greens. Last year Tiger's newish instructor talked in detail about Tiger's ball flight in a Golf.com interview. (Yes, these are the things that occupy us.)
Foley said, "If Tiger moves better laterally with his lower body, and we are keeping his head still, that will create more of a frontal plane or side tilt away from the target, which will shallow out his attack angle. And since the hands are forward at impact, we are actually maintaining the club's loft at impact. To be honest, we have had a more difficult time hitting it lower with what he is learning.... [He's] hitting it higher than ever."
Tiger likes that kind of techie talk. While Mickelson's analysis of his own game is becoming simpler, Tiger's is becoming more complex. Still, he has looked locked in with his new move in his two tournaments this year, at least through 54 holes. That was true last week at Pebble and last month at a tournament in Abu Dhabi, when he was tied for the lead through three rounds with a hatless Englishman named Robert Rock. Sunday in Abu Dhabi was not pretty, either. Post Y.E. Yang—posthydrant—Tiger has shown doubt. The old one never did.
For years, Tiger has talked about his desire "to own" his swing. But in Abu Dhabi he said he has "grown to understand what Sean wants me to do and how my body is going to do those things." Foley is a fascinating theorist who teaches a bunch of good players, but none of them has won a major under his watch. Yes, it's all golf, but majors really are different. The panting fans and jostling TV crews and nasty pin placements—plus all those golfing ghosts—can suck the air right out of your lungs. Years before he started working with Woods, Haney coached Mark O'Meara to two major titles. That's more than a line on a résumé. Mickelson works with Butch Harmon, Tiger's coach for his first eight majors.
Tiger's work with Foley, and with Foley's lean-forward method, is surely rooted in technique and science, but what Woods is doing is an act of faith too. That's different for Tiger, who is slow to trust people, and pretty cool. Talking about his swing changes, Tiger likes to say, "It's a process." It is. His shots have less curve to them now, but his distance control is not there yet. For now, process has the lead. On Sunday at Pebble, Tiger got passed by Jason Kokrak, Greg Owen and Jimmy Walker, among others. Rock wasn't great on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, but when Tiger needed it most, his new swing was not there for him. Rocky won.
All the greats have tweaked their swings over time as their bodies changed along with the tools of their trade. Last week Mickelson softened his rear leg at the top of his backswing. But a wholesale reinvention in prime time? That's never happened. You'd be a fool to second-guess Tiger on the wisdom of this. The 14 majors, the 71 Tour victories—he most likely knows what he's doing. To play golf at the highest level requires something like OCD because it demands enormous devotion to practice, and practicing golf can get dull. Curtis Strange won the U.S. Open in 1988 and '89 and never won on Tour again. He got bored with his swing. Woods, an early riser and an intense worker, can't afford to get bored. His days are too long. He needs to fill his days with something productive, now more than ever.
The development of a new swing is also useful because it gives Tiger something to talk about in public, something that looks forward. At every event he has one pretournament press conference that might last 15 minutes, and talking about his swing eats clock. Nobody asks him about Dr. Anthony Galea or whom he is dating or the anger he might have at the tabloids that traipsed through his trash and his private life.
Tiger doesn't see his life as we on the outside do, that his Act I is over and now he's in the early scenes of Act II, in which the protagonist has so much more texture. His agent, Mark Steinberg, formerly of IMG and now of Excel Sports Management, says the "new Tiger" is going to look a lot like the "old Tiger." Tiger himself, talking recently to a friend about real-life makeovers, said, "I've been an a------ for 35 years. I don't know if I'll ever be able to change." It was meant as a joke. But somewhere in there was the hint of truth.
When he won four straight majors 12 years ago, Woods was one of the most compelling athletes in the world. Now he's one of the most compelling people. He slid down the face of the mountain from its highest peak with the whole world watching, and now he's looking for a new path up. There's a role model out there for him, a man who did something similar: Bill Clinton.
It's a hard way to live, to have your every move scrutinized, but that's modern celebrity life. (People today seem to think that because we pay you, we own you.) In January, many questioned the wisdom of Woods's going to Abu Dhabi, a tournament that conflicted with the PGA Tour stop at Torrey Pines, where he has won seven times as a pro. If winning begets winning, why not stay home? A fair question.
And one, actually, with a simple answer. Like Deep Throat said, Follow the money. The winner in San Diego earned $1 million. The winner in Abu Dhabi earned less than half that. But Tiger received somewhere around $2 million just for showing up in Abu Dhabi. (The PGA Tour doesn't allow appearance fees.) Does Tiger need the money? Hard to imagine that he does. Does he think he needs the money? That's a different question. Would Earl Woods, who died in 2006, have stamped Tiger's passport? Discuss among yourselves.
Six years later the legend of Earl lives on, still rattling the change in his pocket while his boy stands over must-make short ones, preparing him for the day. A prodigy fell into Earl's lap, and he left no stone unturned to help Tiger in his pursuit of Jack. It was Earl who brought Tiger, at age two, to the Mike Douglas Show. That's when the odometer started turning. That's why Tiger is an old 36. At 36, Elizabeth Taylor, also a child star, was pretty much done with acting. She moved on to other things.
When you're a legend in your own time, and Tiger is, normal life is abnormal. If Ernie Els pops into the Palm Beach Gardens Mall with his kids, nobody particularly cares. In part, it's because of how Ernie, a Hall of Famer, carries himself. He shares. Tiger really doesn't.
At an event in March 2007, Tiger was paired with Henrik Stenson, the Swedish golfer. They're the same age. They've been on opposing Ryder Cup teams. Like Tiger once was, Stenson is married to a Swede. They know each other.
"How's Emma?" Woods asked. You'd be surprised how often Woods will ask genial questions like that.
"Great," Stenson said. "We're expecting."
Emma and Henrik's first child was born on July 2, 2007. Tiger and Elin's first child was born two weeks earlier. But on that March day Woods never mentioned a thing about Elin's pregnancy. That, of course, is his prerogative. Still, Stenson found it odd. Odd and cold. There's a wall around Tiger, mostly of his own making. The wall is part of who he is. You can be frustrated by it or you can accept it. Either way, it doesn't change his golf.
Now it all starts again, the Tiger Watch. If he should win at Augusta, there will be pandemonium. Only the novices will say Tiger is back. The old Tiger is not coming back. Intermission is over. If you're looking for a warm and fuzzy and open Tiger, here in the early scenes of Act II, someone you can know and love, you're dreaming. Mickelson has played dozens of rounds with Tiger, sits at the same table with him every year at the champions dinner at Augusta, plays Ping-Pong with him at the Ryder Cup. You'll never hear Phil say he really knows Tiger. Nobody really knows Tiger.
We don't watch Tiger with such intense interest because we feel as if we know him and like him and that when he wins, we win. (Phil gives us that.) We watch Tiger because we're drawn to greatness. We watch Tiger because we want to see if the golfer with 14 majors can catch the guy with 18. We watch Tiger to see what a man does with a second chance.
ALL THIS CONTENTMENT MAYBE GOOD FOR HIS GOLF—OR NOT. THERE'S NO WAY TO KNOW. TIGER HAS SPENT MOST OF HIS LIFE PLAYING WITH FURY.
YOU'LL NEVER HEAR PHIL SAY HE REALLY KNOWS TIGER. NOBODY REALLY KNOWS TIGER.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
LOST AT SEA For three days Woods looked like his old self, but his game deserted him on Sunday, when he shot a 75 and slipped to 15th place.
Photographs by ROBERT BECK
NO CONTEST A more outgoing Woods shared a laugh with Mickelson's caddie, Jim Mackay, but Tiger couldn't have been happy with Phil's beatdown.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
LEFT PUNCH Mickelson, who came from six shots back to take his 40th PGA Tour title, will head to Augusta on a high.