The excuse at last week’s tournament was that he was hitting it too flush. When this one began, Tiger Woods said he was too mechanical. Let’s try lost.
It’s no longer about playing up to the standard he once set. Since slinking back into the game after a self-inflicted scandal, then struggling with leg injuries, Woods has been competitive on only a handful of occasions. He can’t stop spraying his drives, his short game isn’t good enough to save him — especially from greenside bunkers — and he isn’t making putts. In his opening round at the PGA Championship, that totaled up to a 7-over 77.
“I’m not down. I’m really angry right now,” Woods said on Thursday, both hands gripping the lectern he stood behind. “There’s a lot of words I could use beyond that.”
Woods has tried changing his swing, his coach and, most recently, his caddie. On this day he started 3-under through the first five holes focused on what he called “mechanical thoughts” — shorthand for the swing changes he and coach Sean Foley have been working on. For reasons he didn’t bother to explain, Woods said he shifted his focus to playing the way he used to. He proceeded to play the next 13 holes in 10-over.
“I thought, ‘I can let it go,’ and play by instinct and feel,” he said. “And it just screwed up my whole round. I’m not at that point where I can do that yet.”
Woods is not just playing like all those guys he used to treat as extras in the background of his movie; he sounds like them, too. He says he’s never far from a breakthrough, from climbing back to the lofty position he once held. The numbers say otherwise. Since 2009, he’s dropped more than 100 places in total driving (a measure combining distance and accuracy), sand saves and avoiding three putts.
No one but Woods knows how often he practices and whether he’s limited by the leg injuries that have required four surgeries dating back to 1994. But he’s made a habit of playing nine-hole practice rounds, especially recently, which is curious for someone whose dedication to getting better was once beyond question.
The milestone that matters most to Woods, now a few months shy of 36 and stuck on 14 majors, was Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18 majors. Only two years ago, it resembled a stroll. Now, it’s not enough to say the path just got tougher. It seems fair to ask whether Woods has lost his way.