I'm a real golf fan. I even watched last week's tournament, as Woody Austin and Tim Herron dueled down the stretch to tie at 10 under par after 72 holes at the former Canon Greater Hartford Open, now re-named the Buick something or other.
Who? You may well ask. Where? You may well also ask. CBS was probably lucky if it pulled a two share for the Sunday broadcast.
But even I, stone golf fan, watching even this tournament at the lame-duck end of the 2004 season, must admit it hasn't been nearly as much fun this year. Tiger has gone missing.
For those on some other planet, I re-cap: Tiger Woods came onto the PGA Tour in 1996, right after winning his third straight U.S. Amateur crown, won twice, was named Rookie of the Year (Woody Austin, by the by, had been Rookie of the Year in 1995), and then went on to beat the world. His amazing run climaxed with four straight major championship victories, a modern Grand Slam, in 2000 and 2001. Three of those four tournaments, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the Masters, he won by margins so wide the other guys weren't even in the picture. The other, the PGA, he won in a thrilling playoff with Bob May that included unbelievable shotmaking by both players, who had been rivals back to their childhood days.
And right through 2002, and his last major victory at the U.S. Open in Bethpage, Long Island, Tiger kept it up. Since then, he has not won a major. He has stopped seeing his long-time teacher, Butch Harmon, widely credited (including by Tiger himself) with re-tooling the young man's game to the dominant maturity Tiger showed in 2000-2001. He's engaged to be married.
Of course, the sporting media has been all over him. What are you working on, Tiger? (Tiger generally won't say, except to say, "It's getting better. I'm figuring it out.") Are you getting distracted? What about Butch? And on and on.
Now in the midst of all this struggle -- and much of it has been painful to watch, with the formerly precise, cavalier-gallant, magical Tiger now spraying the ball all over the course -- Tiger has put together a record for the current year which most run-of-the-pack PGA tour players would kill for. He won the Accenture Match Play at the beginning of the year, a million dollar prize. He just finished second at the NEC (formerly the World Championship of Golf, one of the year's big-money tournaments just below the majors in significance). In 17 starts, he has finished 12 times in the top 10. He's fourth on the money list, with winnings over $4 million. In a sport where eight victories of any kind can make a respectable career, Tiger has won eight majors -- 40 PGA tournaments overall, this in nine years. He's 28 years old.
"So how do you manage to finish second with your game in such bad shape?" a reporter asked Tiger after the finish at the NEC.
"It's just fight," Tiger said.
And of course, it is interesting, and painfully compelling, to watch Tiger fight for decent scores when the ball won't go where he wants it to go. It makes you realize how good he is.
But, but…It isn't the same magic, not when Tiger has been the dominant sporting figure on the American scene, maybe since Babe Ruth. One shot showed the difference at the NEC. In the second round (I believe), a struggling Tiger, off the green in his approach to one of Firestone's long, hard par 4s, chipped perfectly from about 20 yards, getting the ball to check up and roll gently right into the hole. He knelt down and gave an embarrassed smile.
"Maybe that's it," I thought, as I am sure hundreds of thousands of golf fans thought. "Maybe he'll wake up now." Because magical shots like that used to be common, sprinkled among the precision irons and booming straight drives: Hole-outs from the fairway, impossible flops from the rough to save par, holed out bunker blasts, sudden chip-ins from remote territory for birdies or eagles to transform a leader board.
Nope. Not this year. Not yet. Just Tiger grinding away at what he must think of as his "C game."
It's meritable, it's admirable, it's even noble. But fun? Only for masochists.
Come back soon, Tiger. We miss you.
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