Age brings on-course perspective to Tiger

AUGUSTA, Ga. – You want a sign that Tiger Woods is human? Well, he provided it Tuesday at his pre-Masters news conference, and it wasn’t just by discussing Twitter or offering some self-deprecating joke about errant drives.

No, Tiger revealed he has something in common with the fans that follow him: He’s aging.

He isn’t the young talent on the block. He has to attempt to keep up with the modern world. And while he still talks about how his best days are ahead of him, he has to know that there isn’t any way he can be so sure.

Now 35 and with a knee that’s chronically under repair, he isn’t just reinventing his swing in the face of diminishing physical strength. He’s also watching a new generation of athletes arrive that redefine what is and isn’t possible on the golf course.

You know, like he once did to older golfers, who watched him sail drives 300 yards and knew they had no answer.

“That’s the thing,” Tiger said. “I’m hitting it just as far. I’m hitting it – it’s no problem for me hitting over 300 yards. But there are guys who fly it 320. I played with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland the first two days at Bay Hill. I thought Dustin was long and he’s got nothing on Gary. When Gary steps on it, it’s like, ‘Whoa, are you kidding me?’ His ball is flat. When you think it should be coming down, it just continues to fly.

“He hit a shot on 16, and it was a 335 carry with a bunker on the right, and he hit the face of it, and he’s all bent out of shape that he couldn’t carry it. And he said, ‘I lost the ability to carry 340 now.’ ”

Tiger smiled at the thought.

“[I’m] like, ‘Sorry, I had never seen that shot.’ That’s the new game.”

This is what happens to everyone, of course. Previously, Tiger Woods wasn’t everyone. Now he needs to find an answer in all facets of his life. He joined Twitter because the young guys in the clubhouse were doing it, and he wanted to stay current. “I was pretty leery to begin with, to be honest with you.”

He’s working slowly through a rebuilt swing because, like a power running back in the NFL, he knew his old swings – no matter how successful – weren’t capable of standing the test of time.

“I can’t swing that way. It took a pretty good pounding on my knee doing it that way. As you know I tore cartilage and my ACL over the years, so I don’t want to swing that way. It’s too much pain.”

For 15 years, golf has been trying to keep up with Tiger Woods, trying to respond to whatever he did, on or off the course. Now all of a sudden the script has flipped. Then you add in a tabloid sex scandal that derailed his image, marriage and ability to capture tournaments, and a winless streak that’s lasted 17 months and counting.

It took off the veneer of invincibility. Here was Ian Poulter declaring Woods had no chance at a top-five finish this weekend because his game has been so inconsistent.

“Well, Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods shot back, which in the old days would’ve meant something. Now you have to consider whether Poulter actually has a point.

Tiger is suddenly vulnerable and it’s refreshing to see. He not only doesn’t have all the answers, he’s also trying to figure out the questions.

He’s banking on his third swing reinvention saving him like the previous two did. He talks a good game, but not as good as he used to. He’s right where everyone gets to at some point, at a crossroads where ascending threatens to turn into descending. Even a Gary Woodland tee shot returns to earth eventually.

So he’s trying to hold off the inevitable like the rest of us.

Tiger Woods hasn't won in 17 months and counting.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo)

He was asked: Have we seen the best of Tiger Woods?

“No.”

Was he sure?

“Well, I believe in myself. There’s nothing wrong with believing in myself. God, I hope you guys feel the same way about yourselves. You know, that’s the whole idea, is that you can always become better.”

Actually, at some point you can’t, especially in athletics. Golf isn’t football or basketball, where losing a step means falling off the cliff. This is still a game that rewards guile and strategy and patience. Woods says the key to success here at Augusta National is “knowing where to miss.”

That said, he speaks wistfully at these young guys bombing shots. He notes that the new guys didn’t grow up just playing golf, but more chose the game over more athletic pursuits. They have fast-twitch muscles, can play hoops well and can even dunk.

“I could grab the rim. That was it. I could get a tennis ball over it, but I could never get close to doing what these guys do … It’s a different ballgame.”

It’s actually just some circle-of-life irony. Tiger apparently isn’t much for introspection because he said it hadn’t dawned on him that this is exactly what guys used to say about him.

“Never looked at it that way,” he said. “Now I can certainly see it that way. You know, but then the flipside of it is that how I look at it now: They can hit it a long way, but I can manage myself around the golf course. That’s probably how they looked at it, too. Just because I hit it further than they did doesn’t mean that they can’t win golf tournaments in the end.

“All you have to do is win a golf tournament by a shot.”

He hasn’t done that in nearly a year and a half.

Tiger Woods probably isn’t done winning championships. He is in the middle of a very human struggle to prove it, though, maybe most importantly to himself.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 5, 2011