Don’t Give Up on Tiger Yet

published November 4, 2010

Tiger Woods fell from the top spot in the official world golf rankings last week.  Unless you follow golf closely, you were probably shocked it hadn’t happened a long time ago.

You’ll be even more stunned to learn that he could retake the top spot this week.

The final World Golf Championships event of the year, the HSBC Champions, begins today at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, China.  The tournament brings together the winners of the toughest events on the US, European, Asian, Japan, Sunshine, and Australasian Tours, along with a few of the top-ranked non-winners on each circuit.

Tiger qualified through his victory at the Australian Masters in November 2009, part of his ill-fated trip down under that featured several thrown clubs and a visit from Rachel Uchitel.  We know a lot more about how he spent the rest of the month than anyone really needs to.

Lee Westwood, who supplanted Woods at #1, has a tenuous hold on the position.  He has never won a major — a dubious honor for the world’s supposed top golfer – and two of his three victories in the last two years were on the European Tour.  Germany’s Martin Kaymer, meanwhile, has won six times in that period, including the PGA Championship in the U.S. in August.  He’ll move into first position with a first- or second-place finish in Shanghai.

There’s no denying it was a miserable year for Tiger Woods.  For the first time since turning pro, he has not won a PGA Tour event.  (This week’s tournament would qualify, since it’s one of the year’s four World Golf Championships events.)  His life is in upheaval, his game has gone to hell, and the rising younger generation of pro golfers regards him without fear.

All that is true.  Also true is Woods’s performance in golf’s four majors this year: he was tied for fourth at the Masters and the U.S. Open, tied for twenty-third at the British Open, and tied for twenty-eighth at the PGA.

We had gotten so used to Tiger’s routine dominance that we’ve lost any sense of perspective on his lesser performances.  Taking the majors as the measure of a season, he did manage two top-five finishes.  Three other players also had two top-fives: Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, and Rory McIlroy.  Only two other golfers finished in the top thirty in all four majors this year: Matt Kuchar, a strong Player of the Year candidate, and Charl Schwartzel, whose best result in the majors was a tie for 14th at the British.

By Tiger’s standards it was a truly crummy year.  By most other people’s standards, it wasn’t so bad by any means.  For someone whose world was falling apart – from his own actions, yes, but in a uniquely humiliating way for a person so protective of his privacy – they were pretty damn good.

It’s fun to ask golfers, fans, and other observers if they think Woods will reach Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 professional majors.  A year ago, with four to go and the 2010 schedule including Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, almost everyone would have said yes.  Today, it’s a question answered very slowly, if at all.  It feels like a coin toss, a pick ‘em bet, not a question about which anyone can have strong feelings.

I look at those major results from his annus horribilis and I think it’s foolish to rule him out.  He’s working with a fine teacher in Sean Foley, and appears willing to acknowledge his struggles and to fight to overcome them.  He is still the person whose father told him, “You’ll never run into another person as mentally tough as you.”

I doubt we’ll see him win nine titles in a year again.  Of course, I never thought I’d see anybody win nine times in a year to begin with.

He has a tough four days ahead of him, and many months of practice and exercise to assimilate the changes he’s working on.  After the first round, he’s four under par, near the top of the leaderboard.

He’s spent his life raising expectations and then somehow exceeding them.  I don’t think he’s done surprising us.

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