What’s changed about Tiger Woods is this new fragility he’s showing, this inability to not only overcome setbacks but avoid turning them into public Shakespearean dramas.
If you’re the No. 1 golfer in the world and a man with aspirations of passing Jack Nicklaus for best ever, you don’t publicly blame the guy carrying your bag for losing the U.S. Open for you. You just don’t. There’s a reason Tiger Woods is the global icon with the endorsements and Carnival Cruise Line-size yacht and billion dollars in career earnings, and Stevie Williams, his caddie, is stuck cleaning the grooves of Woods’ clubs every night: They aren’t equals. Williams makes his suggestions. And everything after that is on Woods.
That bargain between pros and their caddies is as old as tournament golf itself. And Woods knows the decorum as well as anybody. Yet there Woods was Sunday, complaining about some club selection advice that Williams gave him during a train wreck of a final round that featured six bogeys on his first 12 holes. Instead of Tiger the Worldbeater — which Woods seemed poised to return to after a sizzling third-round 66 on Saturday pulled him back into contention — what we got on Sunday was Tiger the Whiner.
There’s no use even mentioning the “old” Woods would’ve never yelped like he did about how Williams’ final-round advice doomed him, or about the difficulties of putting on the Pebble Beach greens, as Woods whined Saturday and Thursday before that.
Sunday, Woods was trying to explain why he couldn’t take advantage of final-round leader Dustin Johnson’s death spiral into a total collapse. Johnson blew his entire five-shot advantage over Woods before he’d even finished the front nine on Sunday’s closing round.
The U.S. Open was there for the taking for anyone who could shoot even par or 1-under for the day, and maybe put a little pressure on eventual winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland. McDowell didn’t gripe, didn’t mutter and not surprisingly, conquered a course that Ernie Els, another thwarted contender, staggered away comparing to “links golf on steroids.”
Yet Woods not only didn’t charge into the lead. He made excuses for the 4-over 75 he shot. He threw around blame. All the speculation that Woods would not come back to golf with the same impenetrable mental makeup he had before the Thanksgiving Day car wreck looks more than prescient now. It looks as if his sour state of mind could stick around for awhile. At times Sunday he looked like just another guy in a baseball hat and logos getting beat up by a tough course.
And the odd thing was, Woods’ game shows promising signs now and then. What’s changed about him is this new fragility he’s showing, this inability to not only overcome setbacks but avoid turning them into public Shakespearean dramas where he tosses his head, drops his clubs in anguish after a bad shot, and later insinuates that the world or even those closest to him — like Williams, his caddie of 11 years — are betraying him.
“I told Steve we made three mental mistakes and the only thing it cost us was a chance to win the U.S. Open,” a glowering Woods said in brief TV interview.
It was a far cry from the predatory Tiger who persevered through the tortuous rain and chill and mud at Bethpage Black a few years ago to win the U.S. Open. At one point during that tournament, Woods shrugged and said the course wasn’t all that hard at all — only to have Nick Price scoff and bark back, “If he doesn’t think this is hard, I’ll take my bat and ball and go home.”
The new Tiger is not that guy anymore. Woods opened his round Sunday with a three-putt bogey on No. 1.
On No. 4, he snap-hooked his drive and ended up with a bogey on the short par 4 that had been coughing up birdies all weekend.
On the par-5 sixth — the first of those three mental mistakes Woods referred to — Woods hit a 3-wood off the tee that bounced over the cliffs. He finished with a bogey again, this time on a hole that had been lit up for 38 birdies and four eagles by everyone else Sunday. That really hurt.
“It should’ve been a 2-iron down there,” Woods muttered later.
Yes, well … the drive should’ve been hit straight too.
Then his round got even worse.
Woods said taking some more advice from Williams to take “dead aim” for the flag on the 10th hole when “In my heart I said, ‘No, you can’t play at that flag’,” led to another bogey.
Any hope Woods had of charging into the lead fell away for good two holes later. On his tee shot at the par-3 No. 12 — a 203-yard downhill shot — Woods said his “instincts were to hit a 5-iron to the right of a green.” But again he wavered. “We thought a 4-iron would be better, and I just made an awful swing.”
His ball plopped into the heavy rough, and his bogey left him six shots behind with six holes to play. He was done.
Woods hit eight of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens Sunday, his worst totals of the tournament. He’s lost three majors in a row that he had a chance to win on Sunday. His complaints Thursday that the greens at Pebble Beach were “just awful” to putt on drew a rare and sharp rebuke from USGA executive David Fay, who said, “I cannot accept that. As far as the greens are concerned, he’s wrong. … He’s off on his facts. These putting surfaces have never been better.”
It’s hard to remember a golf official ever taking on Woods like that before.
There’s an old golf story that Nicklaus always liked to listen for who was complaining about the setup of a tournament golf course, because that’s how he knew which guys in the field he didn’t have to worry about beating. The axiom came to mind over the weekend watching Woods.
Mentally, Woods is vulnerable now. If he really wants to win the five more majors he needs to pass Nicklaus’ total of 18, he shouldn’t be close-minded about taking some more advice from Williams or anyone else with the guts to tell him the hard truth: Whining will get you nowhere, pal.
Worldbeaters don’t whine. They just win.