MEDINAH, Ill. -- All I know about Tiger Woods now can be summed up in about 10 words. “I had no idea if he would make that putt.” I guess, in the end, that’s what it comes down to now. Four years ago, just after Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open on one leg, I wrote a column called “The Meaning Of Tiger.”
Here was the crux of it:
All I know about Tiger Woods can be summed up in about seven words: “I knew he would make that putt.”
That was all anyone needed to know then. Woods had to make a 12-foot putt on a pockmarked 18th green on Sunday at Torrey Pines to force a U.S. Open playoff with Rocco Mediate. That was 2008. It was a putt that any golfer CAN make. It was a putt that any professional golfer MIGHT make. But this was Tiger Woods in full spirit, before the knee operations, before the tabloid tour, before the swing changes, before disappointment … and he WOULD make the putt.
The difference between could and would … the difference between possibilities and triumph.
“I knew he would make it,” Mediate said afterward, and he almost sounded naive saying it … EVERYONE knew he would make it. Tiger Woods? Miss a putt that mattered? Impossible. Anyway, that’s how it seemed. This was at the time when Tiger Woods wasn’t just the best golfer in the world, the best golfer who ever lived. He was as good at golf as anyone was at anything.
And so … we go to Friday afternoon, the sun setting in Chicago, and Tiger Woods stood over a putt that was, well, a bit of coincidence, right about 12 feet. This one was to halve a four-ball match at the Ryder Cup. Woods and his partner Steve Stricker had trailed most of the day because Europe’s Nicolas Colsaerts decided for one day to become the greatest putter who ever lived. Colsaerts’ partner, Lee Westwood, was all but useless, but it didn’t matter because Colsaerts made eight birdies and an eagle … and just about all of them were from long range.
If not for Colsaerts, the afternoon would have been an American sweep. The U.S. team -- which had taken so much heat in recent Ryder Cups for not playing well -- dominated the Europeans all afternoon. The most thrilling American pairing was Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley doing their Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid act. It was amazing to watch them feed off each other all day, Mickelson drawing from Bradley’s mind-blowing energy, Bradley drawing from Mickelson’s experience and popularity. I find most of the “pro golf as a team” thing to be pretty contrived -- the high-fives look like something from a 1970s sitcom -- but Mickelson and Bradley really did seem to make each other better, and that was fun.
So, the U.S. led 5-2 as Woods stood over his 12-foot putt. One of those two U.S. losses belonged to Woods; he and Stricker lost in the foursome competition in the morning, and Woods had played miserably. He was so miserable, in fact, that there was a strong suggestion among analysts and second-guessers to sit him down for the afternoon matches. This led to a memorable conversation on a bus between two sportswriters that went something like this:
Sportswriter 1: What the heck is [Captain] Davis Love doing playing Tiger this afternoon?
Sportswriter 2: Well, he is Tiger Woods.
Sportswriter 1: You mean, he WAS Tiger Woods.
Sportswriter 2: I mean, I think you have to give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt ...
Sportswriter 1: Are you trying to win this thing or not?
Sportswriter 2: Well, I mean …
Sportswriter 1: I think that’s what it comes down to. Tiger is playing terribly …
Sportswriter 2: Well, he’s won three times this year and he just finished third in the FedEx Cup.
Sportswriter 1: He looked horrible this morning. I just don’t know what Love is thinking about.
Yes, what could Davis Love possibly have been thinking about playing, you know, perhaps the greatest player in the history of golf, and the guy that 97.3 percent of all people check in to watch. I mean, the guy had a lousy morning round! He must have a screw loose. So, Crazy Love played Woods, and as you might have guessed, Woods played amazing golf in the afternoon -- he was seven under par on his own ball. But two things happened: one, Stricker flailed around, and two, Colsaerts was legendary.
Still, even with all that, Woods had that 12-footer at the end to halve the match. He was playing great. He had just birdied 16 and 17 -- one on a delicate and twisting downhill putt, the other on a breathtaking tee shot that stopped three feet from the hole -- to keep this match going. He had just hit a great shot to give himself this match-tying putt.
But, and maybe this is just a personal feeling, as he stood over that putt I had no premonition, no hunch at all. I guess, as a fan, I would say that’s what makes Tiger Woods different now. His game continues to rise and fall unpredictably. One minute, his swing is locked in, the next it’s locked out. One day he’s sinking every putt, the next he can’t hit one into Snake River Canyon. One hole, the announcers are telling us that Tiger’s back. He’s got the look. He’s got the feel. Three holes later, they're asking each other: “What’s wrong with Tiger?’
You know what all that makes him? Human. It makes him like every other great golfer who ever lived. Hogan didn’t win every week. Nicklaus didn’t win every week. Watson didn’t win every week. They didn’t come close, any of them. The level at which Tiger Woods played in 2000, in 2002, in 2006 -- this wasn’t normal, not even for the best players on earth. He was always good. He never went into slumps. He never missed cuts. He never fell out of tournaments. This is superhuman. Look at Rory McIlroy. He’s the best player in the world, right? He finished 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at the U.S. Open and was 60th at the British Open. Best player in the world.
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, won four majors in a row. He made the cut in 39 consecutive major championships, beginning before he turned pro. In his first 37 majors as a pro, by the way, he never once finished as low as 40th. He twice -- TWICE -- won six events in a row. Everyone remembers how great he was, and yet at the same time everyone forgets. To compare Rory McIlroy to Tiger Woods at this stage is to compare a promising young songwriter to Dylan, an aspiring playwright to Shakespeare, a new sitcom to “Seinfeld.” I mean, it’s not even fair.
Woods was so good during that stretch that he was like those Travelers Insurance commercials: He took the scary out of golf. He never failed on a critical drive. He never choked on an important chip. He never missed a critical putt. This was his standing, and while it’s a bit of an exaggeration -- he probably missed a putt or two, a drive or two -- it was close enough. People still see that in him. When he made the great putt on the 16th hole on Friday, announcer Curtis Strange* talked about how when you absolutely need a putt, Tiger Woods always delivers.
*Or maybe it was Paul Azinger -- am I crazy or do those two guys sound EXACTLY the same?
But, this simply isn’t true anymore. Woods really is still an outstanding player. Sportswriter 2 was right. Woods has won three times on tour this year. He often played brilliant golf during the FedEx Cup playoffs. He makes those important putts sometimes. He misses sometimes, too. In fact, on the 15th hole he missed a short putt that could have made a huge difference. He’s absolutely capable of winning a major championship. But he hasn’t. He’s absolutely good enough to win any time he tees off on tour. But he doesn’t always win. Not anymore.
And as he stood over that last putt, I doubt that I was alone in being completely uncertain. Would he make it? Maybe. Would he miss it? Maybe. This is the new Tiger Woods, not so different from Luke Donald or Matt Kuchar or Keegan Bradley or a dozen other top golfers. Twelve-foot putts are hard. Under pressure, they are harder.
In the end, Woods missed it, just barely, the ball just skimmed the hole. That meant a two-loss day for him. His record in Ryder Cup team competition is now a rather putrid-looking 9-15-1, and this, along with various other variables, might be why Love did decide to bench Woods for the team competition on Saturday morning. But Woods’ ineffectiveness as a Ryder Cup team player wasn’t what interested me. And his “struggles” on Friday afternoon -- when he was beaten by a historically hot golfer and a struggling partner -- weren’t what interested me, either.
What interested me was simply a question: Did Tiger Woods think he was going to make that putt?
Or, maybe the question is better framed like so: Did Tiger Woods KNOW he was going to make that putt?