Woods in need of a major miracle
World No 1 not favoured for first time in 12 years and past champion Miller dismisses Tiger's chances
Tiger Woods marched into the media centre here yesterday and pleaded with Fabio Capello to retain Robert Green for England's second World Cup match. "I hope he doesn't bench him," said the world No 1. "I hope he gets another chance to play."
Tiger is big on second chances, as everyone knows who has heard his words of contrition in the last six months. Alas, the world doesn't seem to be big on him, anymore, even when he is back at the venue where he produced the finest performance his sport has ever witnessed. The 110th US Open begins here tomorrow but only the minority in America see him staging any sort of reprise. Out of 15,000 viewers quizzed by ESPN fewer than 10 per cent called Woods as the winner.
Yet perhaps the best measure of how far his stock has fallen in golf's greatest reputational recession is that for the first time in 12 years he is not the favourite or even the joint-favourite to win a major. When that bunch of Tiger-cowards, otherwise known as the British bookmakers, are brave enough to take him on then you just know something very odd has occurred. Particularly when he happens to be playing at the course where he won by a record 15 strokes.
Of course, it does not get any more bizarre – or seedier – than Woods' fall from grace. Here we are, more than six months on from that car crash outside his home which unleashed a torrent of extra-marital revelations and still the scandal shows little sign of running out of steam or unseemliness. In fact, so debilitating has been the ridicule the only surprise to many is that Woods is as short as 10-1 – rated two points behind Phil Mickelson – with Ladbrokes to walk off with his 15th major. On recent form that most definitely represents a leap of faith back to the days when he bestrode the golfing planet like no champion before.
Since returning from his five-month absence Woods has hit the reverse pedal. With a missed cut, a withdrawal and a tie for 19th in his last three events, the fourth place at the Masters a little over two months ago seems almost as mythical as the zenith of his domination here a decade ago. He has been dumped by his coach, Hank Haney, and a neck injury has only added to the doubt surrounding the 34-year-old. Johnny Miller, the former US Open champion-turned-TV summariser, spoke for many when analysing his chances around this spectacular but demanding layout this week.
"It would still take a small miracle for him to win the US Open right now," Miller said. "He's struggling with the driver and hitting half the fairways is not going to get it done. But Tiger has some awful good feeling about the US Open at Pebble Beach and what happened last time. But he's a whole different cat now. His game's not too sharp."
Miller is not known for holding back and is even prepared to cast his doubt deep into Woods' future. "A lot of golfers get burnt out around his age – it happened with Jack [Nicklaus], it happened with me," he added. "Tiger will have a second career, but personally I think his best golf has definitely been played. He can have a second career that is as good as Phil's career, which is still pretty terrific, but that's the best-case scenario. I just think he has a lot of scar tissue from a lot of things now."
Unsurprisingly, Woods does not agree. He hears the ultimatum about it being this season or bust and wonders why it would have to be this way. Yes he loves Pebble, the same as he loves St Andrews. But would failure there make him any less likely to win at future venues? "Sure this is a big year, because we're playing on courses where I've been successful in the past, and I like the way they set up for my game," said Woods. "But even if the courses aren't such a great fit for my game, it doesn't mean you can't win on them. And you get the same four chances to win every year, and I've got a chance to play in a lot more of them. In the past maybe the guys burnt out earlier because they didn't pace themselves or because they didn't pay as much attention to fitness as we do now."
If that makes Woods sounds as if he preparing to fall short here and at next month's Open, it shouldn't. He expressed "excitement" about the state of his game and his positive prognosis was backed by Arjun Atwal, the Indian pro with whom he has been practising the last few weeks.
"It's been getting better every day," reported Atwal, who joined him in his usual dawn raid yesterday. "It is just a matter of when the bell goes off if he can do it then. I think he will. He is close, very close. In fact, yesterday was a lot better and then today got a lot better than yesterday. It's amazing the improvement."
In truth, nobody should totally dismiss Woods' chances; and nobody will, not even those courageous men with the satchels. But there are rivals such as Lee Westwood who are prepared to attribute "one-off" status to his heroics of a decade ago. "I think Tiger would admit he played the best golf of his life that week," said the Englishman, who partners Woods in the first two rounds. "He was at the summit of his game, and I don't think he has touched the same heights before or since. That is something the rest of us can cling to this week."
Westwood has plenty else on which to grab and not just the world No 3 ranking and his triumph at Memphis last week. The last time Woods ceded superiority on the betting lists before a major was the 1998 Open at Birkdale. At 8-1, Westwood, then just 25, was considered more likely to lift the Claret Jug. As it turned out, he finished in a tie for 62nd, while Woods was third behind his great friend, Mark O'Meara.
It once would have been a Woods scandal to suggest it, but would such a return here this week mark an achievement? And would it genuinely be "a minor miracle"? At the place where Woods created his "major miracle", that is a brave call.