What happened with Tiger Woods?
I’m not talking about what happened last Thanksgiving night in the hours leading up to and including his car accident. That’s something that only Tiger and his ex-wife Elin know, and it’s likely neither will ever tell.
No, I’m talking about what happened with his golf game in 2010. And that’s a mystery, too. In fact, Tiger might not even know the answer to that one.
Here’s an indication of just how bad his year was: He created optimism and a positive buzz with the results of his last four tournaments on the PGA Tour, a T28, a T12, a T11, and a T15. In past years, those results would have represented a slump.
Before that, we witnessed Woods’ worst 36-hole score in his career (153 at Quail Hollow) and a next-to-last-place finish at the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone, a course where he had previously won six times. We saw him withdraw due to a neck injury at the Players Championship, a tournament where his game was so erratic that he popped up two tee shots 50 yards short of where they should have gone and hit another into a water hazard on an adjacent hole that shouldn’t have been remotely in play.
He not only went winless for the first time in his career, he didn’t even have a top-three finish. Ties for fourth at the Masters and U.S. Open were his best showings—and they were his only top-10 finishes in 12 starts.
Here’s a rundown of what might have gone wrong.
He lost his swagger
Joe Posnanski, one of the top sports bloggers/writers around, posted this near the beginning of the Tiger Scandal, writing that he wondered if Woods would be the same player again. Considering the results in 2010, it looks prescient.
Indeed, Woods didn’t play with his usual assurance or confidence, didn’t step to the tee knowing in his soul that he was going to win. And in the two majors he had a chance to win, he didn’t close the deal. I tend to think that the factors addressed below carried greater weight—it’s tough to maintain your confidence when your game has gone south. But the scandal-induced absence may have been the first link in the chain. And I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand the notion that such a life-changing experience might have had deep-seated effects.
He lost his aura
This is essentially a companion to the loss of swagger, the idea being that once that happened he lost his intimidation factor, his foes gained confidence, and they were freed up to play better instead of caving in. Actually, Woods was in contention so seldom that this didn’t even matter. He did have a chance in two majors, but even in those events he wasn’t quite close enough for this effect—if it exists—to take place.
He was rusty
Woods hardly played golf from late November, when the scandal broke, to late March. He didn’t have a chance to even practice when he spent the first month essentially in seclusion and then the next couple of months in rehab. Taking it back further, he had an eight-month absence from June of 2008 to February of 2009 due to knee surgery.
The case of Paul Azinger is instructive. He was never the same player after sitting out eight-and-a-half months due to cancer in 1993-94. This was not due to any lingering physical problems, it was simply that he was never able to regain his form after being away so long.
Has Woods simply missed too much time, making it difficult for him to maintain his game? Running counter to this thinking is the fact that Woods finished fourth in his first tournament back after the scandal, the Masters. Also that he was Player of the Year in 2009 after his knee surgery. On the other hand, he didn’t win a major in 2009. And maybe he made it through the 2010 Masters on determination or the exhilaration of being back. In his second tournament, the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, he shot 74-79 and it was clear that his game was gone.
He was bothered by injuries, and is possibly in physical decline
There was the neck problem that caused him to withdraw from the Players and sidelined him for a few weeks. Before that, there was a slow recovery from his 2008 knee surgery that caused him to bring in Canadian doctor Anthony Galea for blood-spinning treatments. And in April he also revealed that he had torn an Achilles in December of 2008 during his knee surgery rehab.
The neck seemed fine after his return. Then again, Woods has been so reticent about his injuries that we can’t ever fully trust that he really is fine. (By the way, it’s understandable that a golfer wouldn’t talk about injuries, since if he does it looks like he’s making excuses.) Woods turns 35 next month. That’s not all that old for a golfer, but he has been an elite player from an early age, which adds up to a lot of wear and tear on the body.
He was distracted
The fallout of the scandal resulted in a divorce that was finalized in August. Woods’ mind must have been clouded by regrets over what his behavior had caused and what it would mean to his relationship with his children. And in practical terms there were the nuts-and-bolts of the divorce settlement that needed attending to. It’s easy to imagine that maintaining total focus on golf must have been difficult.
He lost his swing
Make no mistake, Woods was very successful under the tutelage of Hank Haney, with whom he started working in 2004. But he was also very successful under Butch Harmon and nonetheless willing to make a drastic change when his comfort level with his swing declined from 2000 to 2003. With no majors in 2009 and a disastrous showing at Quail Hollow and the Players, where Woods seemed to have little control of his shots, the writing was on the wall.
It seemed like it might be a good idea for Woods to go without a teacher. But that’s something he had never done. And over the summer he got so lost that his disastrous showing at Firestone pushed him to go with Sean Foley as his new swing coach. Early results indicate that Foley and Woods have at least stopped the slide.
For the year, Woods ranked a dismal 167th in greens in regulation. This is tempered by the fact that he played a limited schedule on courses much tougher than average. However, he’s always played a schedule geared toward tough courses and has always managed to stay near or at the top in greens in regulation (one of his most impressive stats).
His putting went south
Woods had major problems on the greens at the British Open, PGA Championship, and some other tournaments. The statistics show a mixed story. He actually putted quite well from inside 15 feet—ranking 14th on percentage of putts made from three to five feet and 24th from five to 15 feet. Outside of that range, however, he made almost nothing, ranking 193rd on putts from 15 to 25 feet. We have to be wary of small sample sizes on putting breakdown statistics, but the same pattern existed in 2009 so it seems to be a trend. While his putting was not a disaster, it is true he was not performing at nearly the same level as he was in 2003 through 2008, a period where a detailed study of putting stats by three MIT professors showed him to be the best putter on the PGA Tour.
He lost his short-game touch
The statistics show that Woods’ decline on shots around the green was more precipitous than his putting drop-off. He ranked 168th in scrambling (getting up and down 54.3 percent of the time after missing the green) compared to ranking first in 2009 at 68.2 percent. That’s a huge difference. Woods has always been one of the game’s best and most creative short-game practitioners. It’s hard to see how his skills could have declined so much. Perhaps this is an area where rustiness and a decreased focus have taken their toll the most.
It’s also a contributing factor to his not dominating the par fives like he has in the past. Pros eat up the par fives not only by hitting the greens in two and two-putting but also by frequently getting up and down from around the putting surfaces. Woods’ worsening in scoring from 2000 to 2010 was more pronounced on par fives (4.43 to 4.64) than on par threes (2.96 to 3.10) or par fours (3.97 to 4.05).
Now, the big question. Will Woods come back? I think he will come at least most of the way back.
While 2010 was Woods’ first winless year, it was not his first off year. He managed only one victory each in 1998 and 2004 when he was going through swing changes. In 2010, he was going through swing changes and life changes.
It was a weird year, one that won’t be repeated. But will it have lingering affects? Is the emperor now without clothes?
I wouldn’t bet on it. With the turn of the calendar, Woods can put 2010 behind him. While temporarily thrown off kilter, I believe his desire to prove himself the best player that ever lived is as strong as ever. And I believe that his bad year in 2010 will be a motivating factor. I don’t believe that his loss of confidence is permanent.
Still, it’s no longer a sure thing that Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record of 18. It’s no longer a sure thing that he will win six tournaments a year. That’s something he’s got to prove.
Some of the greats of the game have declined when they were around Woods’ age. Seve Ballesteros, with a similar profile of being a top player from a young age, burned out early. Arnold Palmer lost his aura when he blew a big lead at the 1966 U.S. Open, and never won another major.
Woods, it must be said, out-performed even those greats over the early part of his and their careers, so there’s no reason to expect the same decline. But after what we saw in 2010, he is indeed looking more human than ever.