Tiger’s Trek: The Trail to Torrey Pines
La Jolla, CA—After a horrendous opening to the 2015 PGA Tour season, Tiger Woods is back in the fray again starting Thursday. This time the action shifts to a location where Woods has been extremely successful—Torrey Pines in La Jolla, CA.
How appropriate the name of last week’s event was—Waste Management—because Tiger’s game was akin to the first name of the sponsor. For only the second time in his career Tiger failed to break 80, shooting a horrific 82 and finishing next to last. His only other time failing to break 80 came in the 3rd round in The Open Championship in 2002 at Muirfield during one of the worst afternoons of weather in recent memory in that event.
Woods ended the 2014 in equally forgettable fashion, missing the cut in the PGA Championship—his final full field event for the year. Since his quick exit from Vahalla last year Woods has hired a new swing “consultant”—Chris Como. Thus far, the results have been anything but glowing. When Woods tees off today at 9:20 am on the tenth tee of the easier scoring North Course with Billy Horschel and Rickie Fowler, the eyes of the golfing world will once again be laser-like in their focus.
Woods has encountered issues with his chipping and pitching of the ball from short distances and some have gone even further in saying clearly that Tiger has a serious case of the “yips.” The short definition being the involuntary movement of the hands and arms and thus being unable to consistently control the golf club for such delicate shots close to the putting green. Ironically, it is the short shots and putting which came to identify Tiger as the game’s premier player.
Home Sweet Home
Torrey Pines provides an ideal comfort zone for Tiger. He has won the event seven times and in ’08 captured the U.S. Open in a memorable playoff win over Rocco Mediate—the 14th and final major event he has won. Unlike last week’s event in Scottsdale, which featured a number of low rounds, the South Course at Torrey Pines—which hosts three of the four rounds—is one of the toughest layouts played annually on the PGA Tour, trailing only the likes of Augusta National and Doral’s “Blue Monster” on total stroke average.
What makes the Woods storyline so compelling is how dominant Tiger was and how fallible he is now. In years past, the wherewithal to make the key stroke at the right moment was his predictable calling card. Now the ongoing gaffes and swing errors have applied a kryptonite hold on Woods and made him seem so out of sorts to stop his free-falling. Since returning to the #1 position in the world rankings in ’13, Woods has now fallen outside the top 50—56th now—and is not eligible to play in the WGC event in March at Doral. Clearly, that could change if his play turns around.
Woods has stated he simply needs to get more competitive rounds under his belt to feel the ebb and flow of an actual event and to make the needed adjustments when under the bright lights of tournament play. Although his prescription sounds plausible, the betting folks have not been swayed and Woods has been tagged with odds of 50 to 1 to win this week—the highest they’ve ever been in his professional career. This is the same man who from ’03 to ’08 won five of the six years at Torrey Pines along with his U.S. Open triumph that summer.
Losing His Dominance
What’s more difficult to discern is whether Tiger has the passion to get through this moment and return to the top of the golfing charts. The competitive landscape has changed noticeably since the time when Woods could simply show up at the first tee and his rivals would melt like cheese on a summer day. Now his rivals see a wounded golfer who is building up more and more mental scar tissue. Players such as world number-one Rory McIlroy is on the cusp in being the king of the sport for quite some time. With every poor effort, Woods is seen as more of the past and in the rear view mirror of concern.
Tiger has been through various tough times with his swing, but does the real golf passion still burn as bright at 39 years old as it once did? That’s a question that is hard to answer at this moment. Golf is fickle game—those who command it know full well that fortunate can just as quickly change.
In 1964 Arnold Palmer won his fourth Masters and was at the height of his golf stature—more majors were thought to be just around the corner. None did. The same happened in 1988 when the late Seve Ballesteros won his third Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s with a superlative final round 65. More majors were expected from the 32-year-old Spaniard. Like Palmer, none followed.
Will this happen to Tiger? The count is going on nearly seven years since his last major and his last PGA Tour triumph coming in August ’13 at the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. The issue is not whether others believe Tiger can turn it around but does he? This week at Torrey will indicate plenty on that front.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.