Jack Nicklaus was in his prime when he took a one-stroke lead after three rounds of the 1976 Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. He proceeded to shoot an 82 in the final round, including a 45 on the back nine. The weather wasn’t even bad that day, but Nicklaus was.
Nicklaus had just turned 36 when he had that horrific round, but he rebounded to win 14 more tournaments and four more majors in his career.
It’s an instructive round to remember in light of Tiger Woods’ terrible 79 and 43 on the back nine in missing the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship on Friday. If it can happen to Nicklaus, it can happen to anyone.
In fact, it already happened to Woods. He was headed for a top-five finish at the 2007 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill until he shot a 43 on the back nine that included a double bogey and triple bogey on the last two holes. The very next week he won the WGC-CA Championship at Doral.
That’s not to say that Woods is going to win the Players Championship this week. It’s just to warn that not too much should be made of nine holes.
The awful nine at Quail Hollow has a context, but it’s too soon to determine the significance of that context. It was Woods’ second tournament back after a five-month, scandal-driven absence filled with personal turmoil that may result in the end of his marriage.
So, it could just be a case of a rusty golf game. It could be that off-course issues are weighing heavily on his mind and affecting his concentration. It could be both. In other words, nothing he can’t recover from.
On the other hand, there’s the intriguing possibility that this five-month disappearance could be a real dividing line in Tiger Woods’ career, from a nearly invincible Tiger on one side to a very different Tiger emerging on the other side. But one bad nine, one missed cut, one weekend of shaky ball-striking while in contention at the Masters (lest we forget, he did finish fourth in his first tournament back) aren’t going to tell the tale.
It will be interesting to see what Woods does about his golf swing, which seems to be broken. Will he try to piece it back together with Hank Haney, his teacher since 2004? Or will he go in a different direction?
Twice before, in 1998 and 2004, Woods has broken down his game and come back with a new swing, first with Butch Harmon and then with Haney. Frankly, his game seemed more solid with the Harmon swing. His ball-striking was more accurate, and there were more dominating performances.
Which is not to say he was wrong to make changes. That swing wasn’t working as well in 2003 as it was in 2000, so maybe Woods was justified in blowing it up. But with the Haney swing, he has always been wild off the tee, and it seems like he’s had to rely more on an unmatched mental game and a great short game to stay on top of the golf world. Nicklaus became more accurate as he got older, but Woods is going the other direction.
If Woods ditches Haney, where would he go? Not to Harmon, of course, who is working with Phil Mickelson. At this point in his career, maybe he should just go it alone and work it out himself.
Having just turned 34, Woods might not be able to afford another complete teardown. He won only once each in 1998 and 2004 when he was rebuilding his swing. But with fewer years left, would he want to waste another one?
Of course, Woods has more problems than just his golf swing. If this turns into a lost year, it could be for other reasons.
Then again, maybe it was just a bad tournament. But at this point, the Tiger Woods of 2010 bears watching—and not for the reasons we’ve watched him in the past.
Two players who bear watching, of course, are 20-year-old Rory McIlroy and 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who won last weekend, McIlroy with a 62 at Quail Hollow and Ishikawa with a 58 in Japan. Just as with Woods’s troubles, the same caution applies: Let’s give this time to play out in the long term.
Those were certainly spectacular rounds by young players who already had stamped themselves as potential superstars. But we’re always quick to tag young players as the next big thing, such as the succession of players called the “next Nicklaus” a generation ago or the host of supposed challengers to Woods’ throne. It’s best to remember that most of these players didn’t pan out.
That said, a 62 in the final round at a tough course like Quail Hollow?!! That’s ridiculously good, and quite a coming-out party for a first PGA Tour victory. A 58 in the final round on any course to win a tournament on any major international tour?!! That’s ridiculously good, too. It’s well and good to temper our expectations for the future, but those are jaw-dropping performances.
McIlroy (and another recent winner, Anthony Kim) could be just what the PGA Tour needs right now. And Ishikawa, who has already won seven tournaments, was credited by a Japan Tour official as saving that tour from financial ruin.
The jury is still out on Ishikawa as an international player. We’ll have to see some success outside of Japan before we jump on the bandwagon. But, at 18, he’s still got plenty of time to accomplish that. If he does, Ishikawa wouldn’t be the “next” anything. He’d be the first male player from Japan to make a big splash on the world scene.
Ai, Ai, Ai. Before joining the LPGA Tour in 2006, Ai Miyazato was to Japan women’s golf what Ishikawa is now—a rock star. It took a while for her to make her mark on the LPGA Tour, but after finally scoring her first win in 2009 she has won three of the first five events on the 2010 LPGA schedule, the third coming at the Tres Marias Championship in Mexico last weekend.
So, add Miyazato’s name to Korea’s Jiyai Shin and Taiwan’s Yani Tseng as leading contenders for the No. 1 spot on the LPGA Tour with the retirement of Lorena Ochoa. Shin took over No. 1 in the world ranking thanks to her win in Japan last weekend, moving her narrowly ahead of Ochoa, playing in her last tournament before retirement. Miyazato moved into third place, not far behind.
While Ochoa did not technically retire at No. 1, we’ll give it to her since she was No. 1 at her retirement announcement last week.
Meanwhile, Michelle Wie could have had a victory but let the lead slip away on the back nine. All in all, it was an exciting week for the LPGA. Too bad we didn’t get to see it in the U.S.