Tiger Woods’s withdrawal from the Players Championship today, after nine holes, is a bad omen for his future. The fact that he believed he could compete at all this week, but was limping already after his second shot on the first hole, when his foot slipped in the pine straw, is not a bit of bad luck. It’s the sign of a disconnect at work somewhere in the mysterious depths of Woods’s psyche.
“Give me a few days to see what the docs say, and we’ll take a look at it,” he said in a brief press conference after his withdrawal. He shot 42 for the nine holes he played. “The knee acted up and then the Achilles [tendon] followed after that and then the calf started cramping up. Everything started getting tight, so it’s just a whole chain reaction,” he said.
But the chain actually began at the Masters, when he twisted his left knee, upon which he has had four surgeries, and strained his Achilles tendon while executing an awkward shot beneath the Eisenhower Tree in the third round. He did finish the Masters, and even made a brilliant front-nine run at the Green Jacket on Sunday. But after he went straight into rehab. He didn’t hit balls for four weeks and wore a walking cast.
The total number of golf holes Woods played since the Masters: 18. Nine on Tuesday at the TPC Sawgrass course, where the Players takes place, and nine on Wednesday.
“Oh, yeah, the knee is better, no doubt. The Achilles is better, as well. So I’m here playing,” Woods told the media Tuesday when asked if he was back to 100%.
But apparently not. In the run-up to the Players, several commentators, including Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel, publicly doubted whether Woods would be able to finish. If it was that obvious to outsiders, why was Woods’s judgment so off?
Throughout his career, Woods has been justifiably revered for never showing up at a tournament without the conviction that he could win. That’s one reason he plays so rarely: in recent years fewer than 20 tournaments, including non-official ones. On Tuesday he claimed a similar conviction. “Same as always, try and win the event. Nothing has changed,” he said.
But this was lip service. He must have known that, with virtually no practice and a body so fragile he didn’t make it through a single hole without pain, he had no chance. Here’s the disconnect. Or maybe it’s disorientation.
Woods these days is playing a game with which he is not familiar, to paraphrase what Bobby Jones said about Jack Nicklaus. And he’s doing it with an unfamiliar body, too. Physically, after years of bodybuilding and exceedingly high-torque swinging, Woods is an old 35. Mentally, after decades of on-course domination and little in the way of comeuppance (golfwise, at least), he’s an immature 35. He doesn’t know how to adapt to decline.
If Woods wants to win again, given his increasingly apparent physical limitations, he doesn’t need to reengineer his swing, as he has been trying to do with coach Sean Foley. He needs to reengineer himself, as a crafty veteran. With 71 PGA Tour victories and 14 majors under his belt, he’s got more wile, experience and golf smarts at his disposal than anyone playing the game – way more than enough to win tournaments with imagination alone.
Bubba Watson was right last week when he said, “I think Tiger is going the wrong way. I think he’s so mental right now with his swing. Just go out there and play golf.” If and when Tiger’s body heals enough to start playing regularly again, he needs to let go of the search for a perfect swing and learn to play “old man” golf: put the ball out there somewhere in or near the fairway, and then let the wizard within take over.