Tiger, Tiger... burning out?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tiger Woods is under no illusions what will be required to win the 133rd Open Championship. Asked if the tournament will have identified the best player by the end of the week, Woods replied: "The person who probably controls their ball the best, yes."

Tiger Woods is under no illusions what will be required to win the 133rd Open Championship. Asked if the tournament will have identified the best player by the end of the week, Woods replied: "The person who probably controls their ball the best, yes."

Of course, Woods continues to be ranked the best player in the world but control is not necessarily something he has demonstrated of late. At the US Open, it showed both on and off the course. He missed fairways even when using irons for safety, while in the background there was acrimony with his former coach, Butch Harmon, and controversy concerning his camera-kicking caddie, Steve Williams.

At his best, four summers ago, Woods existed in a cocoon of calm. Nothing was out of place as he won the US Open by 15 strokes and the Open at St Andrews by eight. Rarely, has a little white ball been controlled to such a precise degree - perhaps Ben Hogan or Bobby Jones would disagree - and Tiger appeared to live in a universe of no doubt as he went on to become the first man to hold all four major titles simultaneously.

Yet not even Woods appears to be immune from the golfer's curse - doubt. Suddenly, it is Tiger Woods and the Missing Aura of Invincibility. It is a Potteresque tale, but more Dennis than Harry.

After two years without winning a major championship, and hardly contending for the game's biggest titles, Tiger has reverted to the ranks of the mere mortals. Rather than knowing, without reservation, that his game will be in peak condition, Woods is searching for the right formula, like all the others who like to think of themselves as the major contenders.

By winning the Masters and finishing second at the US Open, Phil Mickelson has supposedly inherited the unofficial nomination as the man to beat. Yet even Mickelson, asked about Tiger's lack of domination, decided to reserve judgement rather than tempt fate.

So which Tiger will show up? The one that is perfectly capable of winning his ninth major championship on Sunday or the one that, if not missing the cut - an indignity that has only occurred once in his career - then does not quite get close enough to be a significant factor at the denouement.

In trying to reclaim his exalted status, Woods practised at home last week instead joining his friends in Ireland. The initial practice rounds here have maintained the hint of an improvement from the final two rounds of the Western Open, his last appearance.

His pre-tournament media conference, at which he was in formidable flat-batting mood, was notable as much as anything for the lack of some of the contemptuous remarks that led Harmon to say he was in denial, though as one New York columnist wrote during the US Open, "Woods probably thinks that's a river in Africa."

There was nothing about his game being "close" to his best, which may mean he is actually happier with his form than for a while. "I think the last two rounds at the Western helped," he said. "Saturday's round was fun and I played the same way on Sunday but just didn't make any putts."

A 65 in the third round contributed to a seventh-place finish, a fourth US Tour event in a row where he has finished in the top-ten without firing on all cylinders.

But at the majors it is a different story. He was 22nd at the Masters and 17th at the US Open, 14 strokes behind Retief Goosen. Since he won the Masters and the US Open in 2002, Woods has only properly contended at the USPGA in '02, losing by a stroke to Rich Beem, and last year's Open, when he finished two behind Ben Curtis. Not exactly names to strike fear into the heart of the world No 1, a position he has held for 327 weeks, a month behind Greg Norman's record, but which could be under threat should Ernie Els win.

Recently, Woods has clung to the ever shortening straw that while he has not won a major in two years, he has at least contended. He avoided repeating the increasingly dubious claim, but admitted: "It wasn't a fun plane ride home last year. I bogeyed the 15th and 17th and missed the play-off by two. I missed three birdies. Just making one of them could have changed the momentum. It was frustrating."

In trying to get back on the major bandwagon, his mindset would be: "The same, go out there and be prepared. Try your best. You can't do anything more than that."

There was no sense of the clock ticking, he claimed. "No, see, I never played that way. For me, I've always played my best when I've gone out and stayed focused on what I have to do and not worried about anything else. That's when I play successfully and that's what I've been doing." Or, rather, he added: "I'm going to try to keep doing."

Woods did what many have been saying he should do, almost ordering, and phoned Harmon after the US Open. It was not to re-engage him as coach but to call a truce. Harmon will continue to offer his opinion as a television swing analyst, a species Woods had been denigrating, possibly because split-screen comparisons with 2000 appear so unflattering.

Woods has been secretive about his coaching arrangements, simply meeting Hank Haney, Mark O'Meara's teacher, as a "friend".

Getting his body and his arms out of sync, an old fault which was stilled during the wonder era around the turn of the millennium, has been the main problem, leading to important shots being blocked to the right, like his drive at the third in last year's final round of the Masters or into the grandstand on the 18th at the Players Championship, or pulled to the left.

Harmon notes Woods's continuing workout regime is changing the shape of his upper body. There have been other changes over the last two years other than jettisoning the mentor who reigned in his powerful, but inconsistent, swing. Whether he is using the best equipment has been questioned by the likes of Mickelson, while there was knee injury which required surgery in December 2002, although he has been able to practise fully for the last year.

But in that time he has won only twice. He has never arrived at the Open as a professional with only one victory in the season, that at the Accenture Matchplay in February rather than a strokeplay event. Since the start of 2002 season, he has won only once when trailing going into the final round. While his record of converting third round leads is still astronomical (34 out of 38) he twice recently failed to win after being the halfway leader.

At Shinnecock Hills, he found the fairway a challenge-sapping 43 per cent of the time and only made more pars than anyone else by employing an extraordinary short game. The problem was the over-par scores fair out-weighed the under-par ones. A key indicator may be that whenever he has won a major, Tiger has scored 70 or better in the first round. In the last eight majors, he has scored 70 or worse. Then there are the final rounds, in which he has not done better than 71 at the last six attempts.

In 1997, Woods equalled the course record with a 64 in the third round but earlier in the week had suffered a triple bogey seven at the 11th. A similar rollercoaster may not be the ride Woods seeks but will not be without fascination.

CLOSE TO WHAT? TRUTH ABOUT TIGER AT THE MAJORS

Tiger Woods likes to claim (though he didn't do so yesterday) that he is 'so close' to rediscovering his winning form at the majors. The evidence suggests otherwise:

* He has gone eight majors without a win and in that time has only been in serious contention twice.

* He hasn't been in the top 15, let alone top 10, of the last three majors.

* His fallow period has often been compared to those of Jack Nicklaus. However in those two separate runs of 10 and 12 straight majors without a victory, Nicklaus came second six times. So far Woods has come second just once.

* In winning eight majors between 1997 and 2002 Woods never exceeded 70 in his opening round. Since his last major triuimph, the US Open in 2002, he has never gone under 70 in his opening round.

Comments