In the third round of the Australian Masters, the uber-famous golfer in the fitted Nike golf shirt and flawlessly clean golf shoes walked to the first hole hoping to make up some ground. He hit two good shots on the first hole and was hoping to make birdie for the third straight day, but missed a 5-footer. Then Tiger Woods three-putted the second hole, and so on, and so on, until he was in the clubhouse with a disappointing 71, falling 10 shots behind a leader nobody's heard of.
That is the thing about Tiger this season. Like a basketball player that loses his legs, or a baseball player that doesn't have the same pop on his throws to first, we don't totally grasp what is happening until it has happened for a long, long time. Finally, we collectively realize they aren't the same player anymore, a "doh" moment that happens to the best of athletes (think Michael Jordan on the Wizards). Do we want to keep seeing them perform? Of course, they're legends. Is it a JV version of what they used to do? Absolutely, no chance that guy would make varsity.
All season, I've been a big advocate for Tiger being fine, just needing a season to find his game, get his life back on pace, and work everything out with his new instructor. But, the past couple of weeks have made me doubt my stance, and this week has been the cherry on top to my thinking. Maybe Tiger won't ever be the same. For golf, that's a scary thing.
Look at just a few of the obvious factors in this. Tiger is currently tied in a tournament with names like Aaron Townsend, Paul Sheehan and Kurt Barnes. At an event he won last season by two strokes, Tiger isn't even in the hunt.
He will end 2010 without a win for the first time in his career. It's the first season ever that Tiger didn't win a World Golf Championships event, dating back to their inception in 1999. This is only the second time in his career that Tiger finished outside the top 20 in the last two majors in a season.
But all that you know. He has had a HORRIBLE year, probably the worst of his life. He's been called names, heckled, divorced, berated, and for the first time in his career, questioned.
Still, when you see this Tiger walk the golf course, it just isn't the same guy. His confidence seems shot. His ability to let the round come to him seems gone. He is grinding like a guy that knows it isn't there. He doesn't seem like he even believes he can do it anymore.
Tiger will turn 35 at the end of next month, and while he keeps hiding behind the fact that Ben Hogan didn't win all his majors until after 34, the fact is, it isn't 1946 anymore, and Tiger isn't the most dominant golfer in the game like Hogan used to be. He has become just another good golfer, that has the ability to woo audiences with his shot-making, yet crush our hearts with his missed putt that would have taken his round from good to Tiger-y.
I expect on Sunday, Woods will close with a good score in Australia, just like he opened with an impressive number in the first round at Augusta, which seemed like a decade ago. He will toy with us once more, make us think he found something, and possibly leave us from competitive tournaments for the season with a taste in our mouth like he could be back in 2011.
But what if he's not? What if he's done? That's scary, but for the first time ever, I'm talking myself into it.
UPDATE: Australian Stuart Appleby won the Australian Masters at 10-under. Tiger Woods shot a 6-under 65 and finished three shots back.