Sunday 18 February 2018

The world is still waiting for resurrection of the Tiger era

It may already be too late to regain former glory, says Dermot Gilleece

Tiger Woods will be acutely conscious of false dawns while competing this weekend in the Chevron World Challenge. And it may be that the first realistic measurement of his competitive well-being will come only when he ceases to be a figure of fun in his own country.

At the moment that is some way off, judging from The Book of Tiger's Text Messages as compiled by veteran scribe Dan Jenkins in the current issue of Golf Digest Ireland. Among references to Marko (Mark O'Meara), Steiny (manager, Mark Steinberg) and Folio (coach, Sean Foley) are some gems like, "I knew it was you with Adam. You broke my heart", directed at erstwhile caddie Steve Williams.

Nor is prospective successor as world number one, Rory McIlroy, overlooked, with the mischievous, "you got real unlucky with the wrist injury. I'd try that tree-stump shot again, anytime. Keep working on it."

It is now just over two years since a minor altercation with a fire-hydrant alerted the world to Woods' extraordinary activities. And it was more than two months prior to that, on September 13, 2009, that the BMW Championship at Cog Hill delivered his 71st and, so far, last victory on the PGA Tour.

After battling through the public's shock at scandalous off-course revelations, Woods had to cope this year with recurring problems to his left knee, along with a damaged achilles tendon. Yet it may come as a surprise that he has picked up $790,922 in official tournament earnings world-wide, which happens to be $70,000 more than the great Sam Snead amassed during 50 years on tour.

Though he was third in the recent Australian Open for a reward of $104,086, his most lucrative cheque was $330,667 for tied fourth behind Charl Schwartzel in the US Masters last April. More important for Woods, however, was that it gave him a 10th top-five placing in the event, leaving him second on his own in the all-time list behind Jack Nicklaus with 15.

Through all his travails, you can imagine him thinking, 'dammit, there's always Nicklaus'. And the Bear's 18 Major wins remain at the core of Woods' continued existence as a tournament professional. Only four more to equal the record; five to set a target which might never be surpassed.

For his part, Nicklaus quietly maintains the pressure, just as you would expect from the game's supreme competitor. And from the stock answer of, "Tiger will pass my record, but he's still got to do it," the Bear was more expansive in a recent interview in the Monterey County Herald.

Nicklaus was quoted as saying: "Will Tiger go back to the way he was, winning all the time? Probably not. But will he go back and play very well? Yes."

He went on: "I played against Palmer, Trevino, Watson, Miller -- all guys who won a lot of tournaments and Majors. Well, now Tiger is playing against some kids like Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Keegan Bradley, who've been successful and are 12-13 years younger than Tiger.

"So he's got his run of guys to play against. So we'll see. These young kids have learned how to win. Not at the level of Trevino or Watson, but they will, because they're such great players at a young age. And that's competition that Tiger will have the rest of his career. If you look out there, there is no one else other than Tiger who's won five Majors. For some guys, that's a whole career."

In the Nicklaus book, winning breeds winning. I remember his explanation for a surprise European victory -- the first on American soil -- in the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village, where he captained the home side. He pointed to the fact that all of the European players were regular tournament winners. And winning, he maintained, was crucial, even "if it happens to be the Hong Kong Mixed Foursomes."

So before contemplating his 15th Major, Woods has to find a way simply to win again. And decent Presidents Cup form is not a realistic pointer. This time last year, his confidence going into the Chevron was boosted by a stunning, 4&3 singles win over Francesco Molinari in the Ryder Cup. And when victory in the Chevron was within his grasp, it was snatched away by Graeme McDowell who did to Woods what Woods had been doing to hapless rivals for years .

Asked recently if he could catch the Bear's Major haul and if so, when, Woods replied with no great conviction: "Absolutely. And hopefully soon."

But first, he has to get his game into competitive shape. In this context, of all the statistics churned out by the PGA Tour, two stand out for me. In 2007, when he had seven US tournament victories, Woods was ranked 45th in Total Driving and 20th in Scrambling. This season, he was ranked 186th and 141st in those categories, with a damning return of 48.9 per cent for driving accuracy. Any pro will tell you that it ain't easy to make birdies from the rough.

Though rivals make diplomatic noises about how much they'd love to have him back, I take such sentiments cum grano salis, especially from those who know just how formidable Woods could be. The most honest assessment I've read came from Pádraig Harrington in a recent interview with Paul Kimmage.

Regarding the way Woods' confidence in his game has been gravely undermined, he said: "I thought he was harder . . . he wouldn't care what anybody thought. It's hit him emotionally a lot harder than I would have expected. You get the impression that because we are successful at golf, that makes us in some ways impervious to the realities of life. (But) I underestimated Tiger in many ways in that sense. I thought he would brush it off and come back out."

Perhaps the damage is irreparable. Only time will tell.

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