“The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It’s gradual. It begins before you’re aware that it’s begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death.”
It hasn’t been a very good year for Tiger Woods.
Perhaps you’ve heard, but within the last 12 calendar months, Woods lost a major he led after 54 holes for the first time in 15 tries, crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant outside his Orlando home, had a deep history of infidelity and sexual philandering thrust into the public eye, issued multiple forced and awkward apologies, and attended sex rehab. And in the time since sex rehab, Woods has not won a single golf tournament.
This has led NPI-favorite Joe Posnanski to openly wonder why everyone still believes in Tiger Woods, why he was still the favorite to win the PGA Championship even though he’s coming off the worst performance of his career, why when he put a poll on his website, only 3% of respondents said Woods would “definitely not” break Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18 grand slams (Woods has 14) when these days he looks “like everybody else.”
It has also led me, for pretty much the first time ever, to disagree with Joe Posnanski.
Posnanski is so admant about this point that it has begun to leak into his writing on non-Tiger topics. This post, about the Seattle Mariners and the power of narrative (psh…we’ve covered that before), makes an interesting point. To quote liberally:
“Narratives have all kinds of power. The story starts to go one way, and it picks up a little momentum, a couple of additions, a bit more speed and before you know it, the narrative becomes reality. The narrative: Tiger Woods will come back after his tabloid dance and be a great golfer again (maybe even better than before). Lots of people believed it. Then, he finished fourth at the Masters which pushed the narrative to the next level. More people believed. Then, after some bad performances, he finished fourth again at the U.S. Open to push the narrative to an even higher plateau.
“And, when I wrote that, hey, Tiger is almost 35, and golfers do not actually age all that well (despite the powerful narrative that they compete well into their 40s), and he’s having trouble with his putting for the first time, and his swing is kind of shaky, and golfers can’t dominate forever, and once things in golf start going south they usually keeps going south … well, I got a whole lot of people who called me the biggest idiot in the history of Western Civilization (and, to be fair, a lot of people who agreed … I was hardly alone on the island). Now, Tiger Woods is coming off his worst week of golf EVER — a performance so staggeringly wretched that people who watched him wonder if he even cares anymore — and he’s STILL the betting favorite to the win the PGA Championship. The power of narrative.”
But there’s another, more pervasive and inaccurate narrative at play, I think, than the “Tiger hasn’t been the same since November” one earning most of the discussion now. It is the “Tiger was as dominant as ever before November” narrative.
“All I know about Tiger Woods can be summed up in about seven words: ‘I knew he would make that putt.’
“’I knew he’d make it,’ Mediate shouted when Tiger made it. We all knew. Anyone could make that putt with the right read, a good stroke and a touch of providence. I’d even say that most excellent pros could make that putt in that moment, under that pressure, with a throbbing knee and a U.S. Open at stake. But only Tiger would make it. Maybe that’s the difference with Tiger, the difference between could and would.”
There is this general idea in golf that Tiger Woods had been unbeatable for a very long time. It is false. Woods’ career arc had swerved many times well before his SUV failed to, from childhood wunderkind to “a win for the ages” to two years of disappointment to the single greatest stretch of golf anyone will ever see to the last nine years. Most people forget the last nine years.
Has Tiger Woods been the best golfer in the world over the last nine years? Of course. But has he been as dominant as he was from August of 1999 to May of 2001? No one can be. As I said last year, the Tiger Woods of 2000 would obliterate the Tiger Woods of any year since then. So when Posnanski wrote about Woods’ birdie on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in 2008 as if it were a fait accompli, it ignores the seven years separating the Tiger who was automatic and the one who pumped his fists so vehemently that day because he had actually missed putts like that one. During those seven years, Woods had started finishing second a whole lot, losing in final-round battles to the likes of Rich Beem and Michael Campbell. He had missed similarly crucial putts in major championships to lose to Ben Curtis and Angel Cabrera.
Woods’ dominance has slowly eroded since 2001, punctuated by his losses to Beem and Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine in 2002 and 2009, respectively. The latter was, to me, the most remarkable sporting event of 2009–far more stunning than the Arizona Cardinals hosting the NFC Championship Game or the Detroit Red Wings losing a Game 7 at home. Woods had never lost a 54-hole lead in a major; he was 14 for 14. In his now decade-and-a-half professional career, Tiger Woods has done a lot of amazing things. But the principal exhibit in the Tiger Mystique was how well he finished. When Tiger Woods got a lead, Tiger Woods won. And he didn’t “hold on” to the lead or anything like that. He usually won easily. Even when Tiger was “playing it safe,” his playing partner usually imploded–simply, as the narrative told us, because he was playing with Tiger.*
*It is hugely debatable how much an effect Woods had on those playing with him. Guys in the final group shoot big scores all the time, regardless of playing partner.** Whenever it happened with Woods, though, it was ALWAYS attributed to him.
**See, for instance, Dustin Johnson (82) at this year’s U.S. Open, or Retief Goosen (81) and Jason Gore (84) in 2005’s version.
The ’09 PGA changed that, when Yang–someone even more unknown than Beem–didn’t just match Woods shot-for-shot like Mediate did. He beat Tiger, and soundly. Yang was four shots better than Woods that Sunday, and I wrote in an aborted post at that time that “[c]onceptually, Woods losing a Sunday lead in a major is akin to a 16-seed beating a No. 1. Sure, it was probably going to happen eventually; you just never planned on it.”
All of this makes it seem as if I’m agreeing with Joe’s “Tiger Woods isn’t as good as he used to be” point. But Posnanski, as shown in his post from 2008, is positing a Tiger Woods who up until very recently never looked “like everybody else” and always made the big putt, when those things simply aren’t true. Tiger has looked very ordinary on several major championship Sundays for many years. While Woods is worse in 2010 than he’s ever been before, his dropoff becomes unnecessarily exaggerated because he’s compared to the mythic figure he hasn’t been in some time. And so this slump of his looks positively Duvalesque, even career-threatening, when placed next to the false image of Dominant Tiger everyone still has.
Does this mean Woods is done? Is this most recent and most precipitous instance of erosion the death knell in his quest for 19 major championships? Please. If Woods does not have a record-tying comeback today at Whistling Straits,* he will have not won a major in 2.5 years. Contrary to what you might think, this would only tie the longest major-less drought of his career (’97 Masters to ’99 PGA and ’02 U.S. Open to ’05 Masters), and even then, he missed the last two of 2008 because of knee surgery. Furthermore, Woods’ finishes in the seven majors since his last win are, in order, T6, T6, CUT, 2, T4, T4, T23. His five top-10 finishes in the last seven majors are more than anyone else.
*I, for one, didn’t expect Woods to win. At the same time, it didn’t seem unreasonable to me that he was the favorite. In all of Posnanski’s criticism of Woods’ status as the fave, he didn’t offer up a sensible alternative. Woods is still the world’s No. 1 golfer. The No. 2 golfer, Phil Mickelson, is in a pretty bad slump himself. No. 3 (Lee Westwood) is out with an injury. Nos. 4, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (Steve Stricker, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, and Ian Poulter) own a combined 0 major titles while Nos. 5 and 6 (Jim Furyk and Ernie Els) haven’t won a major between them since 2003. It’s a lot easier to say Woods ISN’T going to win than to actually bet money on someone else to win.
Woods’ two previous 2.5-year slumps were immediately followed by stretches in which he won seven of 11 majors and six of 14. In 2005 and 2006, he became the first player in golf history to win multiple majors in consecutive years. So he’s “bounced back” rather nicely from this kind of slump in the past.
Now, you can mention that this is different, since Tiger is older. Here’s Posnanski:
“First, he will turn 35 at the end of the year. There has been talk that this means Woods will still be in his golfing prime for the next few years, but history tells a different story. Since 1970, the average age of major championship winners is 32, and things tumble off for golfers after age 35. Fewer than a quarter of the major championship winners have been 36 or older. The only players since 1970 to win multiple majors after turning 36 are: Jack Nicklaus (4), Gary Player (4), Ray Floyd (2), Nick Price (2), Vijay Singh (2), Mark O’Meara (2), Angel Cabrera (2), Padraig Harrington (2).”
You may notice, as I did, how tilted that list is to recent history. The last four players on the list have won their majors since 1998. You may also notice that those last three players, well, aren’t exactly historically transcendent.
These days, it is not uncommon for players in their 40s and even 50s to contend in major championships these days. Tom Watson was a firm putt from winning the British Open last year at 57. Fred Couples was in it on the back nine on Sunday at this year’s Masters. Kenny Perry should have become the oldest man to win a major at the ’09 Masters. The last player to seize the No. 1 ranking from Woods, Vijay Singh, did it at the age of 41.
Posnanski goes on to wonder “why we would just ASSUME that [Woods] is like Nicklaus or Player,” the two golfers whose success in major championships lasted the longest. Well, we assume it because he’s Tiger Woods. I know, I know, it’s tautological. But Joe says a comparison between Woods and Watson is better, since Watson is the last player who it could be said “dominated” the Tour. Watson’s stretch of dominance, however, included seven majors in eight years. Woods’ contained seven majors in under three. There are degrees of dominance, and Woods was several levels beyond Watson in dominating the Tour. No one has dominated the Tour like Woods. Posnanski is assuming Woods is more like Watson, which doesn’t strike me as any more credible.
Finally, it isn’t like Woods is only halfway to Nicklaus. He’s over 75 percent of the way there. He only needs four more to tie Nicklaus. If he doesn’t win this weekend and doesn’t win all of next year, he will only have to match what Nicklaus did after he was 36. And I hope we can agree that Tiger is in a little better shape than Nicklaus was at that age. So Woods has roughly 16 years to win four more majors. Now, for most people, four majors are a lot. Phil Mickelson has four in his entire career, and he’s the second-greatest golfer of his era. But for Tiger? Tiger once won four in a row. Tiger also once won four in the span of two years. Posnanski writes that “[t]he difference between good and great is a whisper.” But as Michael Weinreb rebuts, “[T]he fact that Tiger built that aura in the first place was the most miraculous sports story of the modern age. To presume that he can’t build it again is to ignore that a whisper can pass in both directions.”
The tides of history move quickly when it comes to sports. After losing to Rafael Nadal in the ’09 Australian Open, Roger Federer was thought to be done as tennis’ best player. People wondered if he could catch and pass Pete Sampras’ record 14 grand slams (Fed had 13 at the time). Federer won three of the next four grand slams and appeared on a cover of ESPN: The Magazine with the headline “Who’s the World’s Greatest Athlete: Roger Federer Looks the Part” (the irony here being that the same magazine [and even the same writer!] questioned his reign the previous year). And now that he’s lost in back-to-back grand slam quarterfinals, Federer is done again.
Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record. I am sure of it still. The slumps, the momentary doubt, the returns to prominence–they’re all part of the narrative.