There have been many high points in this year’s professional golfing calendar, yet all were somewhat predictable.
For some time now we have known that Dustin Johnson’s talent would eventually get him over the major championship line and that the USA would finally find a winning Ryder Cup formula.
But if there is still one great imponderable generating the public interest, then it’s Tiger Woods’ comeback to competitive action after more than 14 months of inactivity.
With 106 professional wins worldwide, and a win ratio of 30% for all tournaments played (compared to Jack Nicklaus’s 12%), Tiger Woods’ record in the game is such that he alone will decide his competitive future.
But for those of us who can remember his first professional win, 20 years ago, and who have continued to watch him throughout his peak years, it was sad to see this once fearless competitor postpone his comeback at the Safeway Open last week, not for the usual health reasons but because he felt that his game was not competitively strong enough.
Before his debut as a professional at the Greater Milwaukee Open in August 1996, Tiger gave an incredible interview to then two-time major champion Curtis Strange during which he discussed his ambitions for his professional career.
It’s a fascinating interview, where an incredulous Curtis Strange almost belittled Woods for being “naive and brash” for talking about tour victories and major championships rather than sit his sights on “grinding out” tournament cuts week after week.
In Tiger’s mind, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try and win? His attitude back then defined everything you needed to know about Tiger Woods the competitor — the man who won 71 PGA Tour events, at an average of 5.46 wins per year over the first 13 years of his professional career.
But with only eight victories over the past seven years and none since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational — was last week’s admission finally a recognition that time, injuries and endless mental scarring have finally caught up with this once dominant warrior?
My gut feeling is that the truth lies somewhere in between.
At almost 41 years of age, Woods is almost a full generation older than golf’s current crop of superstars, the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, so it is unlikely that he will ever again be able to dominate the game like he once did. But if it’s inspiration he wants, then he need look no further than our own Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and even his great rival Phil Mickelson, all of whom have won major championships well into their 40s.
So let’s take a brief look at the deterioration of Tiger’s game in recent years and examine the areas (physical and mental) he will need to address if he is to have a realistic chance of becoming competitive again.
The first thing that Tiger has to accept is the harsh reality that he cannot compete physically the way he once did. Statistically, the numbers don’t lie and every single aspect of Woods’ golf game has been significantly worse over the past five years, compared to when he was at the height of his dominance.
In his prime, Tiger used his high clubhead speed and average length (303 yards) off the tee box as a potent weapon. Today, that number is closer to 295 yards and even less accurate resulting in him missing more greens in regulation (74% in 2006 as compared to 58% in 2014).
At the height of his powers, Tiger also had a phenomenal scrambling conversion rate of 45% from 30 yards out but by 2011, that rate had dipped to just 25% — his scrambling ability undoubtedly impacted by his poor putting where his Strokes Gained Putting statistics show that Tiger has lost 2.02 strokes to the field on the greens at each event he has participated in since 2010.
Putting all of this data together, it means that Tiger has lost the astonishing 9.40 strokes advantage he once held over the rest of the field. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see him pressing too hard at tournaments, with frustration more often than not clouding his judgement.
While it would be easy to blame his poor form on everything from injuries to poor coaching or even age, Tiger’s decision to withdraw from last week’s event was an open admission of a crisis in confidence or “stagefright” in what was once a bulletproof and unshakable mindset.
Just eight years ago, it was a forgone conclusion to most in the game that Woods would win at least 19 major championships, such was his dominance in the game. But little by little, those foundations were already falling apart — starting with his father’s death in 2006, followed afterwards by the sacking of his coach Hank Haney and his highly influential caddie Steve Williams.
With all of those pillars now gone, and with history and time very much against him, to give himself a chance, Tiger must change his attitude and be “open” to finding a team that builds confidence, through a sound method, for virtually every component of his game.
Only then will Tiger be truly able to effectively use his greatest asset: his competitive mind.
He must allow performances to happen rather than thinking about making them happen especially in those clutch moments of major championships.
And for the best closer ever in the game of golf, that may just be enough.
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