Is Tiger’s Comeback Real?
His personal foul-ups and physical ailments slowed the recovery of his golf game, but his Bay Hill win shows he is regaining his touch
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012
When Tiger Woods sank a birdie putt on the 18th hole to win his own golf tournament last December, he looked a lot like the old Tiger, punching the air with a right uppercut, letting out a yell, strutting to the cup to retrieve that winning ball.
After all he had been through the past two years, the injuries, the personal meltdown of infidelity and divorce and to a lesser extent the change of coaches and the change of caddies, it could have been easy to say that his victory at the Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial event against a field of 17 other players, was the line of demarcation between Tiger 1.0 and Tiger 2.0.
Tiger 1.0 was the most dominant player of his generation, winning 71 PGA Tour titles, including 14 major tournaments, and a further 12 titles worldwide. He was stalking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, and the Golden Bear was resigned that he would have to give way to the roaring Tiger.
Now, in 2012, we have Tiger 2.0. At a highly worn age 36, several rungs down the ladder from his perennial perch as No. 1
in the world rankings, Tiger 2.0 was talking a confident game, but not exactly playing it. Then, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, a few miles from his former home in Isleworth where his personal life and careeer came to a crashing halt, Tiger won again in convincing style.
Did that victory mean the older Tiger might occassionally roar, or the Tiger of old is back?
For more than two years we’ve seen him stumble with his game as he also attempted to reassemble his perosnal life. The start of the 2012 season tempted his fans. He had a chance to win at Abu Dhabi, but lost to Robert Rock’s solid last round. He had a chance to win at the AT&T but played a miserable final round while rival and playing partner Phil Mickelson stomped all over him. He shot 62 on Sunday at the Honda Classic, finishing birdie-eagle for his lowest final roundever, but Rory McIlroy was too far ahead. Then at Doral in the WGC Cadillac Championship, a throbbing left Achilles tendon forced him to withdraw on the 12th hole and put his season in doubt. Until Bay Hill.
However, this still isn’t the Tiger we knew, at least the Tiger we knew as a player. This isn’t Tiger 1.0, invincible, invulnerable, infallible. This is Tiger 2.0, still the mysterious person and still capable of brilliance, but now fragile, and to the golf world he once ruled, beatable. It’s the old Tiger, not the Tiger of old.
“For him to go back and win again, he’ll have to figure out that he’s a different person today than he was five years ago,” said Nicklaus at the Honda Classic. “I was a different person when I was 25 years old than when I was 35 years old. I had to learn how to play. I didn’t have the strength. I couldn’t overpower the golf course. I’ve got great respect for Tiger’s golf game, and I think he will be back.”
Woods has come back with a new coach and a new caddy. He switched from Hank Haney to Sean Foley in 2010 and last year he switched from his big-time looper Steve Williams to the very well respected Joe LaCava, for more than two decades the caddie for Fred Couples. Until the Achilles incident at Doral, Woods had also seemed to come back healthy, and for him, health is the most critical issue.
He’s had four knee surgeries dating back to 1994, and his Achilles issue stems from a rupture he suffered while jogging in December of 2008 while he was recovering from knee surgery following his one-legged win at the U.S. Open, his last major tournament victory. Woods missed a considerable stretch last year after pulling out of the Players Championship with a knee and Achilles problem after nine holes. It took him until the fall to go from rehabbing his body to rehabbing his game.
“I’ve been able to train again. Rehabbing and training are two totally different scenarios,” Woods said at Pebble Beach. “I’ve been rehabbing pretty much the entire last couple of years, and I haven’t been able to train much. I haven’t been healthy enough.
“I’ve made huge progress there, hence the things that Sean wants me to do with my golf swing. I’m able to practice literally all day if I want to. For a long time there, there was always some kind of limited ball count. Or I’ve got to get back to treatment, I’ve got to do icing, and stemming and all of those monotonous things just to tee it up and do it again the next day. That’s no longer the case . . . My body’s feeling explosive again, and consequently I’m hitting the ball further and I’m doing the things that, as I said, Sean wants me to do.”
Foley, a Canadian of mixed heritage just like Woods, has said he is trying to get Woods back to his swing of old, but with better understanding of just how he does it. He wants Woods to swing with a more definite arc, not sway off the ball, and compress it more with a forward shaft lean. During the first round of the AT&T at Spyglass Hill this year, Woods’ first round of the season on the PGA Tour, Foley walked around nattily attired in lavender and gray. He liked what he saw. “He’s been able to work on the things we’ve talked about,” says Foley. “I think you were able to see that in Australia, then when he won his tournament. It doesn’t come instantly and there will be times when he reverts to what he’s been doing for so many years. But overall, it looks good.”
“As far as this model I’m swinging now, I understand it,” says Woods. “I understand what I need to do now. And sometimes I’m not always able to do it. My start lines are not what they used to be. I don’t curve the ball left to right or right to left as much. The start lines are much tighter. Consequently, when my days are bad or I’m off, it’s not that far off. You know, that’s the beauty of it. That’s why I enjoyed working with Sean and what we are doing. That’s the exciting part about it, is that the ball just doesn’t move as much as it used to.”
Woods continually refers to how he played in Australia last fall, at the Australian Open and then the following Presidents Cup, where captain Fred Couples had made him a rather controversial captain’s pick well in advance of the final team selection. He vindicated Couples’ choice. Woods finished third in the Australian Open and though he won only two of the five matches he played at the Presidents Cup, his point for winning his singles match on Sunday clinched the Cup for the Americans. At the Chevron and at the start of the 2012 season Woods consistently referred to his play in Australia as confidence building (and perhaps it’s no small coincidence that his last official victory came in the 2009 Australian Masters).
After his 62 at the Honda Classic, Woods harkened to Australia. “I think it’s the work I did the end of last year in tournament golf, how important the way I played in Australia was, the exhibitions leading up to that and the way I played those two weeks. That’s what allowed me to win at the World Challenge and one of the reasons I’ve hit the ball as well as I have this year, why I felt so comfortable when the wind was howling on Sunday because of what I did in Oz those two weeks when it was blowing a gale.”
Still, there are issues with his game. Woods’ dominance was not achieved with his driver, and only partially with his iron game. He was a terrific ball striker, but more importantly the greatest short game player of all time, Seve Ballesteros not withstanding. Woods could save par from oblivion, make birdies out of the spinach, make every crucial putt from 3 feet to 50.
That short game aspect has not fully returned. Even while he was winning the Chevron, he missed a green from 90 yards with a wedge, left a rather simple pitch and run shot 20 feet short of the hole. His putting has been spotty, and he says it’s because he’s not releasing the toe correctly, which is something he always did and something that friend Steve Stricker told him about while he was on the practice green at the Presidents Cup.
“Stricks gave me a little lesson on the putting green,” says Woods. “Whatever he says about putting I’m going to listen to. He was basically talking about ball position and releasing the toe.” That still appears to be a work in progress. It was there the day he shot 62 at the Honda. It wasn’t there when he shot 75 in the last round at Pebble Beach or when he opened with a 72 at Doral when he had several good looks at birdie or to save par.
And now Tiger 2.0 has Joe LaCava on his bag instead of Steve Williams. Williams was intense, focused and also provided bodyguard services as he marshaled the swarming media types.
LaCava is no less focused or competitive as Williams, but his visible intensity level is considerably less. “He’s just as competitive as I am,” says Woods. “He’s feisty, and I like his demeanor on the golf course. He may be competitive, but he’s pretty mellow and pretty relaxed out there. I guess when you’re working with Fred, it’s kind of hard not to be relaxed.”
Is hiring the well-liked, approachable LaCava somehow an indication of the mellowing of Woods? For all of his career, Woods has been a distant, Teflon-coated warrior. Nick Faldo described himself has adopting an Iron Chest mentality, an impenetrable persona that shed competitors and adorers alike. Woods’ Iron Chest was as thick as it comes, a heavy-metal protection from the outside world that let him stay focused on beating the living daylights out of everyone.
Davis Love thinks he sees some change in that personality. “I think Tiger has become more engaging,” says Love. “He’s talking to people more. He’s not in and out of the locker room as quick, doesn’t walk around with his head down as much. On the driving range he isn’t the guy with his head down hitting ball after ball anymore. You know, he’s a smart, funny guy, and more of that has been coming out. I think he’s figured out how lucky he is to be doing this, to achieve what he has. His career was like Jack, like Greg, guys who when they were at the top were a little difficult to know. Not everyone can be a Nick Price, a player at the top who is very personable.”
And Love thinks that having LaCava by his side is just what Woods needed. “I think it’s really great that he has Joe LaCava as a caddie,” says Love. “The way Joe is, a great guy, great family guy, is really good for Tiger. In a sense, having Joe makes him one of us. It would be great if he has five Joes around him.”
“Good question,” says Couples when asked what LaCava brings to the table for Woods. “Joe’s a pro, but everybody knows that. He’ll get things right for Tiger. Obviously, Joe and I got along real well or he wouldn’t have been with me for so long. He’s easy to get along with and maybe that helps Tiger some. He’s always under control. But I know he wants to win just as bad as Tiger does, I’ll tell you that.”
Couples had to defend himself by picking Woods so far in advance of the Presidents Cup, and Woods vindicated that selection. But Couples also defends Woods the person. He’s at least gotten a peak inside the Iron Chest, and liked what he saw.
“I know that he can seem like a hardass, but you have to walk in his shoes,” says Couples. “If Tiger does do this, if he doesn’t do that, if he doesn’t sign autographs or play in this tournament or whatever, there is somebody all over him. Well, he just can’t be what everybody wants him to be all the time. He doesn’t blow through people every single day, but if he does and someone writes about it, he’s a bad guy. That’s just not so.
“The whole world knows he made the biggest blunder in the world. With Tiger, everything is just pushed bigger and bigger and it’s just part of the deal, and he doesn’t have a problem with it . . . He was the kind of guy that during rain delays he was always there in the locker room, telling jokes, having a good time with the guys. He didn’t isolate himself. As soon as he walked on the range, though, he was a different guy. It’s business, it’s his work.”
But there was Woods at PGA National, after his 62 which he turned in nearly an hour before McIlroy’s winning finish, signing autographs instead of going to the range, beating a few balls and staying to himself, staying in the moment.
“Tiger 2.0 is a totally different person in public,” says Couples. “We walked through a casino in Australia and he acknowledged people. Now, when you are as successful a player as he is, when you’ve got hundreds, thousands of people talking at you, yelling at you all the time, do you necessarily have to acknowledge everybody? No, I don’t think so. At the Presidents Cup he was great with the crowds, signed autographs, talked to people. Now that he’s back and he’s healthy and in contention, he’s got to rally his troops. I mean there has to be 100 million people on his side.”
And there are those little things that Couples remembers.
“I’ve heard him say he can’t play somewhere because he has his kids that week. I know he tries to spend as much time with them as he can. He works so much on his game and he’s got these sponsor obligations, that maybe he doesn’t have a lot of time for people, but I know he makes time for his kids and maybe now, you know, he makes time for other people. He’s got buddies, but he doesn’t have a 100 of them.”
And Couples remembers, too, those times in Australia when he and his assistants, late from a meeting, found Woods waiting for them like any old soul at the elevator bay. “It sounds stupid, but we were late a couple of times and he hung out at the elevator a couple of times instead of going to the restaurant and saying I’m going to eat and just get going,” says Couples. “He’s a social person, but of course not many people really get a chance to see that.”
All of this is not to say that Woods still isn’t highly protective and at times petulant. When excerpts of former coach Hank Haney’s book were published in Golf Digest at the start of the year (The Big Miss was to come out just before the Masters), Woods reacted by portraying Haney as only out for money. Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg portrayed the book as “armchair
psychology” and as a betrayal of the coach-student relationship.
The published revelations were rather mild, the most interesting fact that Haney believed that Woods, at the top of his career, was considering going into the military after doing special-ops training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. None of the published excerpts dealt with Woods’ personal life, his infidelity scandal and divorce. When questioned at the Honda Classic about this assertion from Haney that he wanted to join the military, Woods turned cold and unresponsive. Though when asked to comment in 2010 about a passage in Tom Callahan’s book My Father’s Son about following his father into the military, Woods had responded: “Well, I always wanted to become a Navy SEAL. That’s something I told my dad from the very get-go—either I’m going to become a professional golfer or I’m going to go became a Navy SEAL.”
It should be noted that at the time Woods accused Haney of money grubbing, he was about to play in Abu Dhabi where his appearance fee was said to be $1,500,000, and previous sortees to the Dubai World Championship had come with hefty guarantees said to be as much as $3,000,000, which is what he got as an appearance fee for his last victory at the Australian Masters.
We get to see Woods, the professional, in broad daylight. We get to see Woods the person in snippets. It’s easier to assess the differences in Tiger 1.0 and Tiger 2.0 as a player because results are definitive. But we rely on only hints and tidbits about his personal life. Sort of like this.
At Pebble Beach he was asked if he was feeling his age. “Yeah, there’s no doubt. It is what it is,” said Woods. “I don’t recover quite as well. I know that I’m sore quite often, just every day when I’m playing with my kids. They’re not very tall yet, and bending down there and playing with them and building things and doing all those things, that’s pretty low to the ground, so I do get sore. Something I don’t remember every being like that.”
He also brought up his kids when asked if golf was more fun again after two years of personal turmoil. “I think it’s more fun now than it used to be because now my kids are becoming an age where they want to see Daddy on TV,” says Woods.
“Daddy, you’re going to a golf tournament, are you going to be on TV? And I say, Well I have to play well. ‘Well, Daddy, can you please play well?’ ”
“That to me, I get more satisfaction out of that part of my life now, so golf is more enjoyable than it used to be, for sure.”
But now, in the age of Tiger 2.0 at 36 and counting, can Woods possibly tell us if the time has come when he could foresee a career downturn, when he no longer could be the most feared competitor of his time?
“I’m not going there,” he says. “I’m not touching that one.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.
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