Wednesday, August 11, 2010
There's a new Tiger on the PGA Tour this summer. He's a calmer, more affable, more serene Tiger. This is a good thing. But when it comes to his golf game, at least recently, he's less ferocious than your local country club's pro. For those who enjoyed watching golf greatness over the last 14 years, this is definitely a bad thing.
The question is, does a Tiger with a new and improved personality and demeanor necessarily lead to a Tiger with an inconsistent driver and a faulty putter? Can he be gentle but still determined to destroy the field? If he is tame, can he keep his opponents from taming him on the course?
There are many potential explanations for his struggles in 2010. He didn't golf for four months. His life is falling apart. He sees his kids less and less. The media and the galleries who watch him no doubt view him differently than ever before. He's not old, but he is getting older at age 34.
But there's the other reason, the one we'd rather not assign blame to (after all, who wants the nice guy to finish last, or wants to believe that Tiger needs that nasty edge in order to compete?) but is staring us right in the face, even talking to us in post-round press conferences.
"Only thing I did good today is I kept my patience out there," Tiger meowed after shooting a 4-over 74 at Firestone, where he has won seven times. You can file that under "Things you never thought you'd see"--Tiger Woods doing only one thing well through 18 holes of golf, and that thing consisted of remaining calm and patient no matter how out of control his swing became, no matter how crazy his score was.
And he was right. He did keep his patience. After he rolled in a 7-foot birdie on the 17th, he turned to the gallery and gave a little bow. We've seen the smile, the sense of humor when he's lapping the field and making golf look easy. But when his golf game is as chaotic as his personal life? Calm during the storm? That's a new Tiger.
Even after shooting a 77 on Sunday to finish the Bridgestone Invitational with the worst 72-hole score of his professional career and a 78th place finish (out of 80), Woods joked that he would have time to get in a practice round for this week's PGA Championship before the Bridgestone leaders even teed off. In the past, it's Tiger himself who would have been t'd off after such a performance. Granted, he wasn't ecstatic--who would be?--but there didn't seem to be an eruption boiling below the surface, either.
We were told back in the spring that we would no longer see the angry Tiger, the guy who yells at photographers and lectures the media. It seems this was no joke--if the new Tiger walked up to his ball on the 18th green and found a fly on it, he might just pick it up gently, whisper a kind word in its ear and make a wish as it flew away.
But what does it all mean for the man pursuing Jack Nicklaus? Forget majors, he hasn't won any of the nine tournaments he's played this year. He appears to have found an inner peace, but he's lost his swing and certainly his mojo. Does one have to be sacrificed for the other?
Michael Jordan always had that look in his eye, as if every game was his last. Nolan Ryan didn't apologize to hitters after plunking them in the numbers. You can practically see the smoke coming out of Ray Lewis's ears before every play. There are exceptions--Albert Pujols and Brett Favre among them--but it seems that for some athletes, the passion they bring to the game and, perhaps more importantly, the fire that burns in their eyes during game time is precisely what fuels their success.
It's early, I know, but with much of the scandal behind him, Tiger Woods appears to be a better man. Unfortunately, he also seems to be a worse golfer. I'm not prepared to write him off, not yet, and I doubt many people are. But it's worth asking: Can the old Tiger and the new Tiger co-exist? Or, if you'll allow: if you take away his growl, can Tiger still prowl?