Tame Tiger is king of the jungle no more
Monday 19 July 2004
It is a tired cliche of the Masters at Augusta that the tournament does not start until the back nine holes of the fourth and final round on Sunday. The same could have been said of most major championships until, that is, Tiger Woods took the game by the jugular. When he had the scent of a kill, it was swift, ruthless, painless. The prey, however, are no longer an endangered species.
It is a tired cliche of the Masters at Augusta that the tournament does not start until the back nine holes of the fourth and final round on Sunday. The same could have been said of most major championships until, that is, Tiger Woods took the game by the jugular. When he had the scent of a kill it was swift, ruthless, painless. The prey, however, are no longer an endangered species.
Tiger's aura of invincibility has evaporated almost as dramatically as the mystique surrounding The Open Championship itself. To lift the old silver claret jug on a classic links course, you are supposed to be a seasoned old pro, steeped in the traditions of the game and at one with mother nature. Try telling that to Ben Curtis or Todd Hamilton or other members of the wildebeest herd who have given the food chain an almighty yank.
But the predatory American who is not as much asleep in the jungle as comatose is Woods. This was the ninth major championship in a row that has eluded Woods and, once again yesterday, he left the killing field with barely a whimper. At the age of 28, the world No 1 is bemused, frustrated and forlorn. Still, he is 10 years younger than Hamilton.
Tiger has not scored better than 71 in the last round of the last seven major championships and yesterday he headed south on the leaderboard with a one-over-par 72. That, in the context of the battle hotting up behind him at Royal Troon, was not so much tame as toothless.
"I made a nice start but I was not able to improve," Woods said. "When I started, the wind was blowing pretty hard but then it died down. The course was perfect. It was tough but fair. I played well but I didn't capitalise. I made mistakes and although I didn't make any high numbers, I didn't make enough birdies."
Tiger rarely smiled on the course but he wore a broad grin when he was asked if he was in a slump. "I had a chance and I felt I could have won the tournament or at least got into a play-off," he responded. "Obviously I didn't win and I will have a look at where I went wrong. I only blocked two shots but I wasn't decisive enough. I didn't commit to all the shots."
Since parting company with his coach, Butch Harmon, Tiger's swing is nowhere near the model of style, power and consistency that enabled him to overpower everybody else on the world's greatest courses.
If he admits to not committing fully to every shot, it would belie a lack of confidence. Basically, he no longer knows with the absolute certainty that was once taken for granted where the ball is going.
Reduced, for the most part, to hitting irons off the tee for safety, he can no longer throw caution to the wind and one of his great advantages, smashing the ball further than almost everybody else, has been compromised. As a result, the rest of his game suffers and his competitors breathe easier.
Jos Vanstiphout, the Belgian sports psychologist who massages the mind of Ernie Els, had his task of convincing the South African that Woods was not invincible made considerably easier by the American's demise.
It is estimated that Tiger's income from golf and extra-curricular activities is £32m a year, which begs another question. Once ravenous, how hungry is Tiger Woods? When he was spread-eagling fields with monotonous regularity, it was predicted that it was only a matter of time before he would surpass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 victories in major championships.
Tiger has stalled on eight and there is no sign of him advancing. It is as if Michael Schumacher was being lapped on a regular basis.
This season Tiger was joint 22nd in the Masters and joint 17th in the US Open. He did not get in a blow. After his 68 in the third round here, his supporters anticipated a charge at the death but it never materialised. Resuming after four under par for the championship, four behind Hamilton, he got to six under with a birdie at the fifth, where he holed from a bunker, and another at the sixth. He went to the turn in 34 and that was the end of that.
Tiger had made no impression whatsoever on Troon's back nine in the first three rounds in 27 holes, he had made a solitary birdie and he floundered again yesterday. He dropped a stroke at the 11th where he hit a wild shot to the right and was fortunate, with gorse to the left, to the right and in front, to find a playable lie which limited the damage to a five. A marshal deep in the undergrowth signalled the location of Tiger's ball with a green flag but he may as well have been hoisting a white one. Tiger dropped another shot at the 12th and yet another at the 17th to come back in 38 for an aggregate of 281, seven strokes adrift of Hamilton and Els.
The 133rd Open Championship was Tiger's 10th tilt at the old silver claret jug and it is worth remembering that he has won it, albeit by a prodigious margin at St Andrew's in 2000, only once. Perhaps when the Open returns to the home of golf next summer, it will provide the inspiration and motivation he needs to remind the world of his extraordinary talent.
In the meantime, he is running with the also-rans. What do you think of Todd Hamilton? He was asked after walking off the 18th. "I don't know anything about him," Tiger replied. "I played with him once but I can't remember where or when."
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