Tigers fall from No.1 slow but inevitable
Nobody inside golf thinks Tiger Woods is the best player in the world anymore. Or the second best. Or perhaps even third. But now that truth is painfully official. Woods's last claim to preeminence was stripped from him Monday.
After 264 weeks at the top, Woods is no longer the No. 1 player in the world under the sport's convoluted point system. Vijay Singh, the player whose caddie once wore a "Tiger Who?" hat, beat Woods head-to-head in the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston to supplant Tiger at the top and ignite "Singh Is King" headlines.
Though the average golf fan may be slow to grasp it, and Woods seems to remain in denial, the Tiger who became the most famous athlete on earth has suddenly become an endangered species. This season, Phil Mickelson trounced Woods by 33 shots in the four major championships, finishing first, second, third and sixth. Let's see, that means Phil would have to give Tiger one-a-side to even up their major matches, right?
Ernie Els crunched Woods in those four major tests by 25 shots as the South African finished second, second, fourth and ninth. Mickelson and Els contended every time. Woods never showed up -- for the second straight season.
Now it is Singh, the PGA Championship title-holder and ultimate Tour grinder, who has left Woods in the dust. Tied with five holes to play, Singh pulled away to an alarmingly easy three-shot win.
In fact, the leaderboard's omen of the day may have been the name of the player who tied for second place with Woods: 24-year-old Adam Scott. The Australian, who works with Woods's former coach, Butch Harmon, shot a closing 35-30 -- 65 that featured 350-yard drives and might, with fairly hot putting, have produced a back-nine score of 28. Or even 27.
Those are the sorts of deeds that Woods once produced. Now, the next generation, with its sights raised to the level at which Tiger set the bar, may be gaining on Woods faster than he is recovering the ground he has lost to Singh, Mickelson and Els.
Just 27 months ago, when he walked off Bethpage Black with his second U.S. Open crown, Woods held a huge advantage over every other player on earth in competitive charisma, ferocious will, analytical gifts and athletic ability. Above all, he had enough confidence to fuel a dozen champions. A prodigy from age 2, Tiger had no reason to believe that anyone could beat him. And, after 20 years of amazing feats, he had no reason to believe that he would ever be guilty of beating himself.
Now, all that has changed. Confidence has, too often, been replaced by bravado. Woods won't even admit his pain at losing his place at the top of the game. Before Monday's round, trailing Singh by three shots, Woods said: "I think it should be a lot of fun -- a lot of fun -- to go out and compete against Vijay. I think it will just be a blast."
Try to imagine Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaus in such circumstances. Would any of them pretend that the crown atop their heads, won with so many years of labor, was being worn so lightly? Are the myriad companies for whom Tiger pitches product begging him to play down his problems, pretend he's still on top and grin for the camera as greatness slips away, one disappointment at a time?
We can be sure that Woods was not "having a blast" on the 14th green. At that moment, Woods and Singh were tied for the lead and that No. 1 world ranking hung squarely in the balance. However, Tiger had all the momentum. He had sunk a 40-yard wedge shot for a pandemonium-invoking birdie at the 12th hole, then watched Singh bungle a simple up-and-down from 25 feet for a bogey at the 13th hole to fall back into a tie. On the 14th green, both men faced nine-foot putts for par from spots less than six inches apart.
For Woods, this was the juncture at which his opponents had faltered while he had risen to a thousand challenges. The stage was perfectly set for Singh to miss and Tiger to make. Except this time Singh sank his putt. Woods had the gift of a perfect read. If he missed, it would mean he simply could not execute a proper stroke at a crucial time.
Tiger's putt didn't even graze the lip. Singh, who had looked demoralized, came to life and birdied three of the last four holes.
Afterward, Woods said he'd been pleased with his play. But that's what he almost always says now when he doesn't win. His swing changes were taking hold, he added, for perhaps the 115th consecutive week. And, he added, he had finally straightened out his wild driving so much that, perhaps, Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton could trust him. "Hal might even put me out there in alternate shot," said Woods, mugging into a national TV camera like a wannabe lobbying for a roster spot.
The day may come again when Woods stands atop his sport. No one has ever played the game as well as he did at his best. So, it's conceivable, though exceedingly remote, that he may someday dominate the sport as he did in the era of his Tiger Slam, when he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots. Remember that guy?
However, just as it was important to understand how amazing he was when he lapped the field by eight shots at the British Open at St. Andrews, it is just as necessary to be candid now and face the degree to which he may be squandering his legacy.
In the past two years, Woods has consciously tried to de-emphasize golf, broaden his life and seek balance. He's changed his coach and his swing. He's had more fun and practiced less. At times, he's laughed when he's failed. And, instead of heading to the practice range after a bad round, he's even quipped that he was going to go "have a beer."
Woods has tried to humanize himself, become more like us, join the common experience -- at least to a degree. He's even done a marvelous goofy comic imitation of the deranged greenskeeper in "Caddyshack," played by Bill Murray. When a 28-year-old with a nine-figure net worth does his Carl Spackler riff, he may be trying to say, "Can I be one of the guys? Please?"
Perhaps the results should have been predictable. Little by little, he has lost his edge in every element of his golf game. On any given day, enough parts are in working order that he's still one of the best players in the world. But, over four days, it has been a distressingly long time since he was a reasonable facsimile of the golf genius that redefined the limits of the sport.
This latest installment, this symbolic stripping of the "No. 1" distinction from his resume, was a kind of final act in the demythologizing of Woods. Now, he is human, all too human, and prone to every golf misery that afflicts his foes.
Beginning with the high-pressure Ryder Cup in two weeks, Woods has a chance to start the long climb back to the mountaintop he once ruled. Unless, of course, he must fall even farther before he starts to rise once more.
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