Tiger Woods has shown us he’s three-quarters of the way back to his old self. Trouble is, that final fourth is proving this puzzle’s most elusive piece.
On Sunday at Pebble Beach, Woods again entered the last 18 holes with a great chance to win. Just as he did two weeks prior in Abu Dhabi, Woods played like a winless journeyman who shrinks from the moment, posting a 75 to drop from third place to a tie for 15th.
At least this time he didn’t lose to Robert Rock.
Then again, Woods would probably rather lose to the unheralded Rock than fall to Phil Mickelson, who flat-out spanked him at the AT&T. Heck, Woods would probably take a case of the shanks over shaking Mickelson’s hand in Sunday congrats.
In fairness to Woods, it would have taken a mighty effort to match Phil on this day. Lefty was unconscious from the third hole on, pouring in putts from Monterey to Mexico en route to an 8-under 64. It may go down as Mickelson’s greatest non-major triumph, considering the score and the setting.
So while it’s tempting to focus on Tiger’s failure – I stand guilty as charged – let’s give Mickelson his due. It’s a testament to his remarkable talent how quickly Phil can go from zero to hero. He proved it by winning at Pebble Beach two weeks after missing the cut in San Diego, much as he did by taking the 2010 Masters after a series of ho-hum outings.
But enough about Phil. Let’s talk Tiger.
Woods’ play since last fall shows that his new, Sean Foley-installed swing is becoming more natural. He’s contended in each of his last four stroke-play starts, winning the unofficial Chevron World Challenge in December. Of course, a victory that felt like a breakthrough at the time now seems like a case of Tiger (barely) outplaying a small, just-here-to-collect-a-check field.
Rather than build on that effort, Woods continues to fall flat on Sunday – a day he once dominated so thoroughly, the Pope considered renaming it in his honor. After previous stumbles, it was assumed that Woods still didn’t trust his refurbished swing enough under hot hot heat. Soon, most guessed, his Thursday-through-Saturday play would extend to the final round.
Instead, Woods appeared to take a step back at Pebble. The primary culprit was his putter; he could barely hole a 2-footer. Woods loathes the course’s pebbly poa annua greens, but chalking up his yips to bumpy surfaces or a faulty stroke seems a bit delusional.
It’s clear that Woods’ once impenetrable self-belief has been severely damaged. My theory is that the 2009 revelation of his secret life caused Tiger to feel something completely foreign to him – shame – and that he’s uncomfortable in the spotlight under which he used to thrive.
Psycho-babble aside, the question isn’t what caused Woods to lose his legendary confidence, but whether it will ever return. We’ve seen him fight through swing changes and injuries. It took time, patience and willpower, but Woods persevered and came out stronger.
But self-doubt? That’s a foe he’s never faced on the golf course.
With each final-round flop, you wonder if he’s got what it takes to beat it.