Three years ago, upon learning that the 2015 U.S. Open would be played at Chambers Bay in University Place, the first person I thought of was Tiger Woods.
At the preposterous age of 33, Woods had won 13 major tournaments – five short of the record, once thought to be unbreakable, held by Jack Nicklaus. The question wasn’t whether Tiger would pass Jack on the career major-victory list. The question was: When?
A reasonable expectation was 2013. Allowing for injuries (always a possibility), or a slump (more improbable), or an unanticipated turn of events in Woods’ personal life (unfathomable), perhaps Nicklaus’ record might endure all the way to 2014.
But 2015? No way. Whatever history figured to be made at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, it almost certainly wouldn’t be built around Woods’ chase of Nicklaus.
Three years later, the question no longer is whether Tiger Woods will win 18 career majors. The question is: Will the formerly invincible champion – golf’s version of a young Mike Tyson, whose simple presence was enough to wilt the resolve of opponents – even be relevant in 2015?
Woods hasn’t won a major since beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff for the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods hasn’t won a PGA Tour event of any kind since Sept. 13, 2009, when he finished first at the BMW Championship at Cog Hill.
After 71 victories during his first 14 seasons on the Tour, Woods’ winless drought has been extended to a year and a half. The most recent FedEx Cup standings, released last week, put him in a tie for 160th place with South Korea’s Sunghoon Kang and Columbia’s Camilo Villegas.
The 2011 FedEx leaderboard, in case you’re wondering, looks like this: Mark Wilson, Jhonattan Vegas, and D.A. Points. And while I’ve got nothing against the likes of Jhonattan Vegas (aside from the fact his first name looks like a typographical error) or D.A. Points (whose full name looks like a college law-team statistic), I miss those days when Tiger Woods challenged the world, and the world stood no chance.
It would be one thing if his struggles were strictly technical. (Even Nicklaus went through some dry spells, albeit late in his career. Nicklaus’ memorable 1980 U.S. Open championship, at the age of 40, broke a two-year winless streak.)
But Woods isn’t just losing tournaments. He has lost the fear factor he commanded over his fellow competitors.
“I don’t think he gave it everything today,” Woods’ final-round playing partner, Brendan Steele, told reporters after the Jan. 30 conclusion of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. “Once it started going in the wrong direction, I don’t think it had his full attention.”
Steele’s candor is refreshing, but his words were those of a PGA Tour rookie. Instead of looking at Woods as a living legend, whose most indifferent effort ought to be beyond reproach, the rookie saw him as another veteran ho-humming his way toward another paycheck.
When Woods was eliminated from the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on the first day Wednesday – his drive missed the fairway on the 19th hole, and after using two strokes to get out of the rough, he conceded the match – his former swing coach, Hank Haney, noted on a Twitter text: “For all the talk of Tiger’s poor driving the last six years, I have never seen (him) drive it out of play with a match or a tournament on the line.”
A rookie wonders about Woods’ desire. A swing coach wonders about Woods’ poise at crunch time.
The rest of us wonder if golf will be as entertaining without Woods in the final-round mix as it was when his red polo shirt was a Sunday-afternoon staple.
The axiom – be careful about your wishes because they may come true – specifically applies to Woods’ spectacular fall from grace. I can recall turning on the TV to root for somebody – anybody – with the fortitude to take on the red-shirted machine.
Bob May, Chris DeMarco, Shaun Micheel, Woody Austin: All of them had a chance to deprive Woods of a trophy in the final round of a major tournament. The distinction finally was seized by Y.E. Yang, who overcame Woods’ two-shot lead to win by three in the 2009 PGA Championship.
Two months later, after the National Enquirer published a story alleging that Woods had an extramarital affair with a New York City nightclub manager, he drove his SUV into a hedge (and a fire hydrant, and a tree) outside his home in Orlando, Fla., and his veneer of invincibility took a sudden, but permanent, change.
The golfer used to rattling opponents by showing up on time at the first tee now rattles nobody. The fact he picked up some $90.5 million in purse money and endorsements in 2010 seems not to matter as much as the fact he’s won $18,096 on the Tour in 2011.
When the 2015 U.S. Open comes to Chambers Bay, will Tiger Woods still have the desire to compete?
Will we care?