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Will Tiger Ever Be Tiger Again?

The worst thing you could say about Tiger Woods is that he has become ordinary. His personal tragedy reduced him to the level of human and his golf game has declined to the point that he’s no longer special.

He’s good enough to play the PGA Tour but he’s not good enough to win or even threaten to do so. He is a wanderer in the land of T45. Tiger has mutated into Skip Kendall.

Anyone who paid close enough attention to the look on Woods’ face after he lost his first-round match to Thomas Bjorn in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship knows that Tiger is as lost and bewildered as he has ever been. Ever. Bjorn spent an extra few moments after the match trying to console Woods, who is his good friend. But Tiger looked inconsolable.

The last two holes of that match illustrated Woods’ troubles in a capsule. He made a Tigeresque birdie on the 18th hole to bring the match square and it appeared, for a moment, that he had the match in hand. But on the 19th hole, he stood on the tee for what seemed like an eternity and made seven, count ’em, seven practice swings. Then, with a 3-wood, missed the 100-yard-wide fairway and hit it wide right into the desert, losing the match.

Last week, in the second round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, he hit two shots that defied explanation. He hit a tee shot with a driver that snap-hooked low and violently and didn’t get more than 120 yards off the tee. Later in the round, he hit a fat, popped-up 3-wood that traveled 180 yards. Wonder if there was an idiot mark on the top of his club?

This kind of hacking and chopping comes out of the bag of a 15-handicapper on pro-am day, not the greatest player who ever lived. He now knows a little of how the rest of us feel, particularly after having taken a couple of lessons when you are stuck in the no-man’s-land between the old swing and the new swing.

Trouble is that most of us eventually get too frustrated and revert back to the old motion. If it’s not great, at least it’s familiar. No one but Woods and his teacher, Sean Foley, can decide whether to ditch what they are doing and go back and seriously look at some video of Tiger 2000.

However, it should not be taking this long for Tiger to find his game again. He has been too good in the past not to try to find what worked before. He’s too good an athlete not to be able to find a swing again that produces good results. He simply should be better by now.

But Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. You’ve got to believe that the way Woods’ playing is driving him the least bit crazy.

The first problem is that Woods is a swing geek and he wants to know every position, plane and posture that makes his swing work. He has never been a feel player and never will be.

The second problem is that Tiger has relied on his superior mind to win 14 majors. For a time, he was mentally tougher than anyone who has ever played the game, including Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. The areas over which he has the most control mentally traditionally have been trouble shots, short game and putting.

No one, not even Phil Mickelson, has had as much imagination as Woods. Because he has been so wayward off the tee, he has been forced to invent all kinds of shots and has left playing companions and television announcers in complete awe in his wake. He had the best short game on Tour and no one putted any better in pressure situations than he did.

Now, everything his mind once controlled has abruptly left him. He can’t pull a good round out of a bad one. He can’t make birdies from the trees. He can’t make the putts that he once holed with alarming regularity. Whether from the very public nature of his troubles or the divorce or the fall from grace, Tiger’s mind is sawdust.

And until that repairs itself – and there’s a great chance it never will – Woods will continue this mediocrity that has emanated from his own impossibly high standards.

Is Tiger finished? Perhaps not, but he won’t ever be what he once was. Will he win again? Probably, but not with regularity. Will he break Nicklaus’ record? More and more, it looks like he will not.

The greatest player of his generation had a chance to be the greatest who ever lived. And maybe he still will be. But for now, we are witness to what is the greatest rise and fall in the history of the game.

If Woods comes back to 50 percent of what he once was, he will be a great player again. In the meantime, we had better become accustomed to the notion that the great has descended into the abyss and Atlas has shrugged.


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