Tiger Woods’ zenith-to-nadir fall is now complete.
On Sunday at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Golf Tournament, which used to be his own private playground as fellow golfers often thought they were playing for second place before they even teed it up, Woods went out as a lone, solitary figure.
His unfathomable chopper round of duffer-relatable 85 on Saturday left him at 71st in the 71-man field that had survived the two-day cut. Because of the odd number, he had to go it alone. To be honest, I can’t believe he played the final round as he’s recently been the king of the withdraw when things aren’t going his way, generally citing an injury.
I’m sure those who operate the cameras for CBS and Golf Channel had to be grumbling. Because of who he is and what he means to the game, they had to lug their equipment out much earlier than expected to document this latest train wreck for the former greatest golfer in the world, who was the day’s honorary dew sweeper. At least he made for must-see TV, even if we had to shield our eyes.
Never mind catching Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. On this weekend, he couldn’t even catch the 70 golfers ahead of him. Of course, he started Sunday eight shots in arrears of the next-worst golfer, so he had considerable ground to make up in his bid to be No. 70.
He turned back the clock for a while, as he had it at 3-under for the day at one point. But then his driver again betrayed him and his short game lacked enthusiasm and commitment, leading to 5-over for the rest of the day for a final-round of 74. His final, staggering total of 302 was eight shots worst than the next rung on the ladder.
As the late, great Jack Buck said, “I can’t believe what I just saw” this weekend. Tiger has become a sympathetic figure, much like Willie Mays when he wrapped up his career for the New York Mets stumbling and bumbling in the outfield at age 42.
Physically, Tiger has had to endure a spate of injuries that have rendered his game to pedestrian status as he can’t drive it 320 right down the center of the fairway in his sleep anymore. He’s gone from being the most sculpted golfer on tour to one who probably has to take two Aleve before he even tees off. His ails certainly have played a big part in his rapid decline.
But it’s mentally where Tiger has come apart at the seams. He used to have more resolve than any player who ever teed it up, including Jack. He pulled out victories from the jaws of defeat and evoked fear from his opponents. He always hit the impossible shot, made the improbable putt, riling crowds into an unmatched frenzy.
But that armor of invincibility has been stripped away, leaving a lost golfer with a psyche that’s bruised as much as Joe Frazier’s face after the “Thrilla in Manila.”
All the talking heads have their theories and nobody really knows if Tiger is ever going to get it back. He did win five times in 2013, but missed most of 2014 and when he did play, he looked like an impostor — just like the guy who went out Saturday and donated ball after ball to the water hazards.
Tiger isn’t the first golfer to lose it in a heartbeat — David Duval and Ian Baker Finch come to mind. I’d like to say this is a blip on the radar, but we’re going on more than a year now.
Maybe Tiger is just setting us up, maybe this is all one big tease. Perhaps when he gets to the U.S. Open in two weeks, he’s magically going to shoot a first-round 67 and send roars cannonading through the crowd. The familiar fist pump will return and he’ll wear shark-red on Sunday when he plays in the final group. He’ll stare down Rory McIlroy and Jordan Speith and say, “not so fast kiddies. I’m still the man.”
I’d like to say that I’m not betting on Tiger. But I know the moment I go against him the magic will return. Golf needs Tiger Woods to be at the top of his game. I can’t imagine him being relegated to a ceremonial golfer and just hanging on to make cuts. That’s not who he is.