Who was that guy? Early-season Tiger observations

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2015 issue of Golfweek. Since publication, Tiger Woods made his second start of the year at the Farmers Insurance Open, but withdrew on his 12th hole. Woods announced Feb. 11 that he was uncertain when his next Tour start might come.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Words I never thought would be written: Tiger Woods has the yips. It’s one of golf’s worst four-letter words. The yips is a malady that tends to fester, and it isn’t covered under Obamacare. Few ever recover from it. Golf Channel’s Arron Oberholser voiced the opinion of many when he said, “I hate to say it, but I think the greatest player that I have ever seen has the yips. He has the yips right now. Whether that is because of his release pattern or not enough reps, it is flat out the disease. He’s got the yips.”

Two rounds is a small sample size, but Woods never had looked more lost than he did at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. His 2-over 73 was his highest score to open a season as a pro. If that performance could be summarized as lacking bite, then his second-round debacle must have felt like being kicked in the teeth. His 11-over 82 was the worst score in 1,267 rounds of his professional career. Woods missed his 13th cut worldwide, tying for last with club pro Michael Hopper among the 131 players who completed 36 holes.

Before the tournament began, Woods exuded optimism, stating he was “ahead of schedule on each stage of the game plan,” and had “hit thousands upon thousands upon thousands of chips” to remedy the shortgame woes that plagued his game at the Hero World Challenge in December.

“Now it’s better,” he said.

It took one hole to confirm that was far from true. When his approach landed short of the green, Woods passed on a lofted club and chose to run a 4-iron. Soon enough, his demons with the wedge were exposed for all to see.

While Woods obsesses over his patterns and his explosiveness with swing consultant Chris Como, golf is still a game not of how, but how many. Forget about speed. What golf fans wanted to know in Phoenix was, could Woods get it in the hole? The answer was emphatically no. In the second round, Woods went out in 44, or as those of us who usually shoot that score call it, one under bogey.

It was all the more startling because nobody could extricate himself from a perilous situation with a wedge like Woods. It made him an unstoppable force. In his heyday, he wanted not just to win but to win by KO. At TPC Scottsdale, the referee would’ve stopped the fight to save Woods further punishment.

Truth be told, the decline of his short game isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Woods, who ranked No. 1 in scrambling on Tour as recently as 2009, was fourth in the category in 2012 but fell to No. 46 in 2013. He would have ranked 153rd in his injury-plagued and abbreviated 2014 season.

Concern quickly ratcheted to DEFCON1. Instead of debating whether Woods, stuck on 14 major championships since 2008, would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18, the discussion shifted to, Is Woods washed up? Like leaves from autumn trees, it’s only a matter of time before our heroes fall from their perch. Is this what Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform looked like? Watching Woods incapable of hitting the most basic lofted pitch was a reminder of the fragility of greatness. Never before had we seen Woods humiliated in such a manner between the ropes. “Make it stop,” a fan said. But the best player of his generation had no answers.

“Sure it’s odd,” said Jordan Spieth, who played the first two rounds with Woods. “But it’s his second tournament in six months. He’s really revamping his golf swing and just seems like he needs more repetitions, from the looks of it. He looks very healthy, looks like nothing was bothering him, so he should be able to get out there and get a lot of practice in. I would look for him to make a strong comeback this year.”

Others weren’t so sure. Behind his back perhaps, but never so publicly have players questioned, of all things, Woods’ mental fortitude.

“Remember when Tyson got beat by Buster (Douglas)?” former Tour winner Paul Stankowski tweeted. “Tyson went from mentally invincible to confused. Tiger has the same look. I hope he finds it again.”

Colt Knost, who hit balls for a half-hour on the range near Woods, also wondered whether what was holding Woods back might be more complex than trusting his technique. “Something is going on in that head of his,” Knost said.

After each round, Woods recycled more excuses than the tournament sponsor did beer bottles at the 16th hole. He needs reps. His swing is too shallow. He’s between release patterns. Woods had a few new ones too, including blaming a new grind on his wedges. “I’m just having a hard time finding the bottom (of the swing),” he said.

Woods canceled his plans to attend the Super Bowl and went home to Florida to practice ahead of his next start, in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, a site where he has won eight times as a pro.

“You’ve got to get out there and do it,” Woods said. “Hitting golf balls is one thing and playing golf at home is another. Playing tournament golf is entirely another. I have to continue with the process. I have been here before. It wasn’t that long ago that I changed my swing with Sean (Foley), and I was Player of the Year only a year ago. You’ve got to keep things in perspective, and sometimes it’s difficult to do that.”

We could be laughing about all this the first week of April, but does anybody really think there’s a quick fix for what plagues his game? For Woods’ sake, let’s hope we’ve seen the bottom of his career trajectory.

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