Time is fast running out for Tiger in Major chase
Having witnessed Tiger Woods capture his first Major, it strikes me that I may also have seen him win his last. This previously unthinkable notion has been prompted by last Sunday's news of a bulging disc in his neck, followed by Hank Haney's resignation as his swing coach.
Granted, if the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines proves to be the last of Woods' major titles, it would be a most appropriate and memorable one, given his play-off triumph after a total of 91 holes on a wrecked left knee and two leg fractures. In anticipation of surgery on the anterior ligament going according to plan, however, few back then would have bet against him surpassing Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors.
Two years on, we're in a very different world.
When his potential was being assessed in the wake of a record-breaking Masters victory in 1997, Woods was universally acknowledged as someone very special, an extraordinary talent. He was then invested with superhuman qualities after a staggering 15-stroke win in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.
All of which became perfectly reasonable when he held all four major trophies -- the so-called Tiger Slam -- through victory in the 2001 Masters. It is only in the last few years that we have been forced to consider the player's humanity.
It effectively began when we were prepared to see some relevance to his admission that he had been battling left-knee pain for years. And we suddenly realised that other prices could be paid for the physical violence which delivered such stunning shoulder-speed in his swing. As in back trouble.
Meanwhile, after the bizarre happenings of last November, it emerged that, to put it mildly, he had made seriously poor choices in his private life. Which means that on top of recurring injuries, he is faced with the prospect of a costly and humiliating divorce, while trying desperately to maintain a relationship with his two young children.
It would be hard to imagine anything further removed from the superhuman Tiger who crushed his rivals into virtual insignificance at Pebble 10 years ago.
Though typically it took months to emerge, Woods fired Butch Harmon as his coach in August 2002 after the swing they collaborated on had delivered eight Major titles. Harmon got a seemingly modest $50,000 a year for his services, but there was a huge pay-off in terms of status for his teaching academy in Las Vegas.
Two years later, having gone eight Majors without a victory, Woods found it necessary to do some knuckle-rapping after Harmon had accused him of being in a "bit of denial" about the state of his game. "I decided to phone Butch and handle it the way it should be handled," he said. And a state of mutual tolerance was apparently restored between them.
The belief is that Harmon was removed for attempting to exploit their relationship to further his own career. Meanwhile, the coach has had no shortage of high-profile clients, including Adam Scott, Fred Couples, Stewart Cink, Justin Leonard, Darren Clarke, Jose Maria Olazabal and Steve Flesch. "I don't charge any of them; that way I'm the boss," he said. "If they feel they've had a good year, they can write me a cheque. If they don't, that's fine too."
Given the extraordinary collapse in Woods' game, one imagines that Haney departed the scene so as to protect his reputation among the elite of American coaches. It is clearly not much of a recommendation that a client of Woods' status is unable to keep the ball in play.
Is Haney making way for a return by Harmon? This seems highly unlikely, given the intense rivalry between Woods and Phil Mickelson, who is currently Harmon's star pupil.
It may appear absurd to be writing the obituary as a Major winner of a player who is still only 34. But that's the age Arnold Palmer was when his 1964 Masters victory proved to be the last of seven Major triumphs. And Tom Watson had won all of his eight majors by the time he was 33. Dammit, the great Bobby Jones was only 28 when he felt he could no longer stomach competition at the highest level.
Every great player has had a limited span at the top. Only Nicklaus, who won his last Major at 46, has exceeded expectations. Most manage no more than 20 years of supremacy, even with a clean bill of health.
It is now close on 14 years since Woods delivered a well-rehearsed "Hello world" on his professional debut. Even if he manages to turn his life around, mentally and physically, this means only six years remain in which to win the five Majors he needs to beat Nicklaus's target.
As the Americans say, that's a long way from being a done deal.