Thank god for Henrik Stenson. The Swede was the only man keeping Tiger from finishing last at the Bridgestone Invitational. A lot of people wondered when Woods would start making headlines with his golf. Well…here we are. The gigantic and confounding failure that was Woods’ week in Akron leaves the entire PGA Tour in an odd and uncomfortable state of limbo. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. The Tiger will be back camp have been beating their chests for months now, talking about Pebble, St. Andrews, his rust and everything else. But, now we are miles past any deadline for a physical recovery for Woods and his game looks worse than ever. How much longer will Tiger need? Or, could it all really be over?
The 18-over par week was easily the worst 4 days Tiger has ever put together as a pro. It was different from his early struggles at Quail Hollow and different from the Tiger that had been struggling with various parts of his game. The precision driving we saw at St. Andrews was gone this week, and so was every part of Tiger’s game. He hit the fewest fairways and nearly the fewest greens while putting worse than almost the entire field. Where else was Tiger going to end up, except 30 shots out of the lead? I can’t help but think this is a new low for Woods, who often gets plenty of TV coverage when he’s on the fringes of contention, but none of that was to be had this weekend. He was on a plane for Whistling Straits before most people finished their pancakes Sunday morning. For the first time in his career that I can remember Woods was just another guy who had a terrible week, and not even CBS could sugar coat his play.
Of course Tiger still holds down the World’s Number 1 ranking, which is a stat that reflects his previous dominance and Phil Mickelson’s inability to close out several opportunities to capture the top spot. The ranking holds almost no prestige for Woods anymore, though. I don’t know an intelligent golf fan anywhere that could argue Tiger is the best player in the world right now. Perhaps he could have been given the benefit of the doubt, even through this week, but that’s gone now. Along with being number one in only nominal terms, Tiger has lost all the intimidation that went along with his previous standing. Some argue that the loss of Woods’ aura is due to his off-course issues, but I think it’s taken several months of mediocre play to hammer the notion home. Sure, Tiger wasn’t the man many people thought he was, but if was still dominating, his on-course presence would be the same.
As Woods spirals downward, questions that would have been unthinkable not long ago begin to present themselves. The one at the forefront right now is, should Tiger be left off the Ryder Cup team? Up until this week there was a feeling that Woods would play his way onto the team. Now it would take a very strong finish at the PGA, and there is no reason to think that is going to happen, not at Whistling Straits, a course that right now looks like it was designed to be Tiger’s worst nightmare. The Tiger of old would have taken the doubt, the suggestion that he couldn’t do something, and charge to a victory. He had unrelenting fight. It seems that is gone now too. I thought Quail Hollow was the first time I ever saw Tiger quit on the golf course, but after listening to some quotes after today’s round, I think this is the first time Tiger has ever felt helpless.
Woods said that golf isn’t very fun for him right now, and his statements after the round lacked his trademark forced jokes or aggravated shortness. Previously it had been, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another…hahaha,” but Tiger doesn’t look to have the energy for that anymore. He’s lost, and frustrated, and could possibly be in dire need of an extended break from competitive golf. So with an obvious lack of desire, and a game that would have him struggling on any Tour, why would Tiger ever want to play and why would Corey Pavin ever pick him? Well, Woods will likely decide his own fate in a meeting with Pavin this week, where the two will discuss Tiger as a Captain’s pick. If Tiger wants to play, he will play, even if he shoots 85-85 at Whistling Straits. The problem is, I don’t think Tiger wants to play.
So, if Tiger is mentally absent and wants no part of Wales, what will happen? Remember that the PGA Tour runs the Ryder Cup. It is their pet project, a great interest generator in the game. There is no one that generates more talk than Tiger, and his absence from the event will hurt its stature. Woods missed the ’08 version with an injury, but with the Americans coming off a string of ass-kickings, their was a built-in storyline. If Tiger doesn’t play this time around, with the event overseas, we’ll likely see a similar situation to the ratings disaster that was the 2010 Open Championship. I don’t think the PGA of America could strong-arm Woods into playing, but I’m sure they want him there, and if he doesn’t play it will be interesting to see how it is handled. Could Tiger possibly come up with another nagging injury? Does he take all the heat? Does Pavin step-up and call it his decision? We’ll find all this out this week, and we’ll continue to wait and see if Tiger shows any signs of living up to his world ranking.