So, we're all pretty much done trying to figure out Tiger Woods 2.0. Agreed?
Tell me you had The Red Shirt winning Jack Nicklaus' Memorial – coming off the worst three-tournament stretch of his career (tie-40th at the Masters; missed cut at Quail Hollow; tie-40th at Sawgrass) – and you are the Tiger Woods of clairvoyance.
Tell me you had El Tigre winning after his 73 on Saturday left him four strokes back of the lead. Tell me you knew it was in the bag after Tiger made bogey on Nos. 8 and 10 on Sunday, falling three shots back. I didn't. I can't figure out Tiger Woods, 2012-style, anymore.
Instead, let's settle on two things:
One, watching him birdie three of the final four holes, including the all-everything chip-in birdie from the heavy stuff to a canted green on No. 16, was a hell of a way to spend a Sunday.
And two, Tiger Woods is, incredibly, on the early short list for PGA Tour Player of the Year. After all, only he, Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan have multiple victories in 2012. How 'bout them apples?
If you heard it once from a friend on Sunday, you heard it 100 times: Tiger is back!
Except, wait. If all this "Tiger is back!" chatter sounds familiar, it's because we all engaged in it after Tiger won four starts ago, in March, at Arnold Palmer's house, Bay Hill.
Think of what's happened since then: Bubba Watson arrived as a Masters champion, while Tiger was an also-ran at his home away from home. Rickie Fowler won at Quail Hollow, while Tiger missed the cut. Matt Kuchar won at Sawgrass, while Nick Faldo told all who would listen that Tiger had lost his self-belief. Tiger wondered if Faldo had a superpower to see inside his head, then was never a factor at The Players Championship.
Then came the Memorial at Jack's house at Muirfield Village in Ohio, and everything changed. Tiger shot a Sunday 67 while his main competition on the day shot 72 (Rory Sabbatini), 75 (Spencer Levin) and 84 (Fowler, who played like pre-Quail Hollow Rickie). Tiger chipped in on 16 and roared like he did from 1997-2009, a barbaric yawp of joy that seemed to spring forth from an angst-ridden place somewhere in his soul, waiting to be unleashed since his Escalade hit that fire hydrant on Thanksgiving night, 2009.
It could be coincidence that Tiger's two wins have come at parties thrown by Arnie and Jack. Or, it totally could not be. Tiger likes to show off for legends. It's part of the "Legend Code" – how legends communicate with one another while you and I golf-clap from the sidelines.
Plus, Tiger is a "courses" guy. If his comeback was going to begin anywhere, it would be at his personal playgrounds like Bay Hill (seven wins) or Muirfield Village (now five wins). Of Tiger's 73 wins on the PGA Tour, 36 – or almost a clean 50 percent – have come at six tracks, adding Torrey Pines (six), Firestone (seven), Doral (six) and Cog Hill (five) to Muirfield Village and Bay Hill.
Those who know Tiger best know he's proud of 73 wins, tying Nicklaus for second of all-time, and at 10 years younger than Jack when he won his 73rd at age 46. They know he's beyond pumped to stick it to doubters like Faldo, or to old swing coach Hank Haney, who fueled Tiger's tank with the tell-all book "The Big Miss." (Tiger's last win came the week Haney's book was released.)
But those who know Tiger best know he won't consider himself back until he wins a major championship. Majors are the currency in Tiger's world. While he loves "getting the W," as detailed in Haney's book, there is no "W" like a major "W," so all eyes turn to a week from Thursday when Tiger arrives at San Francisco's Olympic Club for his next start.
It's easy – and tempting – to say Olympic is not a "Tiger course." He tied-18th at the 1998 U.S. Open at the Lake Course, but that's almost a useless statistic, considering how much his world – and his game, and his equipment, and his swing coach – has changed. Still, Tiger has never flourished at tight, tree-lined, ball-striker's golf courses. San Francisco golf is precision golf: small greens, heavy air, canted fairways. While Tiger can win anywhere in the world, part of the Tiger 2.0 World is that other players such as Bubba and Matt Kuchar and Fowler and Hunter Mahan and Dufner have risen in stature and confidence.
However, in his two 2012 wins Tiger has shown a discipline off the tee and from the fairway he didn't always show in his prime. He led the Memorial in greens in regulation. Tiger 1.0 used to hit it anywhere he wanted, and it didn't matter because he'd make everything on the greens. And I mean everything. Nobody has ever putted like Tiger Woods from 1997-2009. Tiger now putts like anybody has ever putted since his fall from grace, and actually missed several key putts Sunday that would have put the tournament on ice. He ranked way back – 41st – in the field in strokes gained putting.
It's beyond intriguing: Tiger in a new incarnation, more accurate off the tee at times; more inconsistent than ever overall. Tiger in a new incarnation, hitting greens like he's never hit them before; missing putts more than ever. Tiger in a new incarnation, watching other players arrive with confidence and yet still dialing up shots like the chip-in on 16, creating roars that will echo throughout the sports world for a long while. Don't try to figure it out. Just applaud the theatre.
Scorecard of the week
71-79 – Rory McIlroy, missed cut, Memorial Tournament, PGA Tour, Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio
One year ago, when McIlroy thrust himself into golf history – a U.S. Open record 16-under par; becoming the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones; en route to becoming second-youngest No. 1 player in the world ever – a convalescing Tiger sent him a congratulatory note. Dan Hicks read it on NBC as McIlroy marched the final hole at Congressional: "Enjoy it," wrote Tiger, in closing.
Hmmm. Was that a congratulatory note, or a shot across the bow, a warning that whatever glory McIlroy was enjoying may be fleeting and that Tiger would be back? One year later, the latter is looking like the better bet.
Tiger will roll into Olympic with the figurative mink coat on, having his people park his Rolls Royce in Parking Spot 1A. Rory McIlroy will be the guy outside the gates of Olympic with a cardboard sign reading "WILL MAKE CUT FOR FOOD."
Almost inexplicably, McIlroy has missed three consecutive cuts – at Sawgrass, the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship and the Memorial – for the first time since he was 19 years old. Considering McIlroy's 2012 season was looking brilliant with a runner-up at the WGC Match Play, a win at the Honda Classic, a third at Doral and a playoff loss to Fowler at Quail Hollow, it's a shocking turn of events. Especially for a kid many thought of as "The Next Tiger."
By the way, Tiger has never missed three consecutive cuts in his career.
The theories are plenty, including McIlroy's own assessment that he hasn't practiced hard enough and that just a few bad holes have undone him. At the Memorial, he made a quadruple-bogey "7" on his third hole of the first round. He did fight back to shoot 71 on the same day Tiger shot 70. But in Friday's second round, double bogeys on 11 and 14 sealed his doom.
A look at his performance on the biggest stages this year – a tie-40th at the Masters and missed cuts at The Players and the Memorial – indicate a possible struggle with pressure.
McIlroy is taking dramatic measures to correct matters and has entered the PGA Tour stop in Memphis this week to try to fix his game before his title defense at the U.S. Open. He is the only player in the world's top-16 rankings in the field. McIlroy used the phrase, "I might have taken my eye off the ball" in handling all his success. Surely, his relationship with famous women's tennis player Caroline Wozniacki has come under scrutiny as a distraction, with Luke Donald wryly noting: "I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend. I would take my eye off the ball sometimes as well. You can't blame the kid."
Ah, the wisdom of elders. What was it Mickey used to tell Rocky Balboa in the movies? "Women … weaken … legs!"
McIlroy may need to start beating up slabs of beef in a freezer to get his mojo back.
Broadcast moment of the week
"It's the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I've ever seen." – Jack Nicklaus on CBS referring to Tiger Woods' chip-in from the rough on No. 16 in Sunday's final round at the Memorial at Muirfield Village.
Holy Bubba Watson-at-Augusta-in-a-playoff, Batman! The Golden Bear was overheating in the broadcast booth.
Now, we have to be careful before throwing a 15-yard hyperbole flag on Jack. In fairness, Jim Nantz asked Nicklaus how it ranked as far as golf shots he's seen at his tournament.
So, if Nicklaus was answering only in terms of the Memorial, we'll stand back and applaud. However, if he truly meant "ever seen," it may be fair to wonder if the thought of Tiger winning his 73rd PGA Tour title, tying Jack for second of all-time, at Jack's house, got Nicklaus all hot and bothered.
Either way, it was the first Tiger Moment of the post-Tiger Era. And, yes, we are in the post-Tiger Era. Despite his No. 4 Official World Golf Ranking and two wins this year, Tiger has not won a major in four years and is coming off the worst three-tournament stretch of his career. Don't despair, Tiger fans. To be in a "Post-Tiger Era" means there was a "Tiger Era" to begin with. Last I checked, the golf gods weren't handing out "Eras" on street corners.
That said, he's entirely capable of all-time magic, because he has more talent and desire in the pinky of his left golf glove than almost any player who ever breathed. The chip-in on 16 was all-time magic, given how long it'd been since we'd seen him dig deep for a Tiger Moment.
With all eyes on him and a one-shot deficit to Sabbatini, Tiger airmailed the par-3 16th green and had a downhill chip from gnarly rough. As he told Peter Kostis, if he left it short, it'd roll way left. If he hit it long, it'd be in the water. And the line was tricky, too. Add it up, and it was your basic legendary shot to win, especially since it came on his 70th hole.
As for the reaction, well, that came from a primal place. We haven't seen Tiger yelp like that in three years. He's been the butt of late-night jokes, he's been divorced, humiliated, scorned by the public, but he's always had the trump card – his golf wizardry. When he casts his spell, it's like nobody else, and his guttural roar and fist pump was to let everyone know how good it feels to have that ability, and how good it feels to summon it when he needs it most.
As Gary McCord said, dryly, perfectly, amid the hullabaloo: "He's engaged."
Mulligan of the week
As an unabashed fan of Northern California's Spencer Levin, I'd love to give Levin Mully of the Week honors, and nudge him toward the winner's circle after his near-misses this year at Phoenix (blown six-shot lead Sunday) and the Memorial (blown two-shot lead Sunday). However, Levin's back nine 40, with three bogeys and a double, featured too many choices. His cup runneth over with needed mulligans, so I'll pass.
Instead, let's look at "The Other Rory." In a world where McIlroy has a stranglehold on the name "Rory" in first-name sporting circles, the tempestuous Rory Sabbatini – not a boy wonder, not a major champion, not a charismatic kid with a winning smile – was the one in the hunt Sunday.
He's a piece of work, Sabbatini. He's a six-time Tour winner, a 36-year-old with talent and a temper, and not afraid to engage in hostilities. He stormed off on Ben Crane years ago for slow play. He woofed at Tiger a few years ago, calling him "more beatable" than ever. He engaged in a profanity-laced shouting match with Sean O'Hair this year, and yelled at a volunteer in L.A. he thought moved his ball.
So how juicy would it have been to see fiery Sabbatini and Tiger in a playoff? To do that, Sabbatini needed to hang on to his lead after Tiger's chip-in, which only tied the lead. However, as if knowing it was pre-ordained Tiger would win, Sabbatini roasted his tee shot on 16 into a bad lie in a bunker, hit out well past the hole and did not make the par putt. His bogey saw him tumble from the lead, and Tiger cruised with a two-shot victory.
For the sake of drama, and for a guy who would snarl in Tiger's face on national TV, let's go back out to the 16 tee, remind Sabbatini that he could make some good theatre by making par, give him a few breaths to calm down and … give that hothead a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
Nothing can prepare a player better for the cool, foggy climes of San Francisco's Olympic Club than a week in Memphis in June.
Or, maybe not.
So, good luck to young McIlroy, along with 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and the Johnson boys – Zach and Dustin (same name; different game) – who will headline the field in the Volunteer State. I do hope they realize that everything about the Memphis stop – climate, golf course, local cuisine, how the natives talk, how the state votes in presidential elections – is about 180 degrees opposite of San Francisco and the O Club.
I don't like the idea of playing in Memphis ahead of the national open.
If I were them, I'd head to The City by the Bay early, get in a few practice rounds at Olympic, ride a cable car, go to Alcatraz, eat some Dungeness crab and sourdough bread, go hike Mount Tamalpais, drive to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, take in a Giants game at AT&T Park … oh, wait. I live here. Guess I'm biased.
Good luck in Tennessee, boys.
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