The Hank Haney book, "The Big Miss," comes out this week. In a related note, renowned book reviewer Tiger Woods issued his blurb over 72 holes at Bay Hill:
"Did I read my old swing coach's book? Eat my dust! – Tiger Woods.
Maybe his review won't make the back of the paperback version. His performance, however, resonated around the golf globe.
Nobody authors dismissive "Forget you's" like Tiger Woods. Whether mentally crushing Sergio Garcia or Ernie Els in the early 2000s – two items mentioned by Haney in the detailed, nuanced, instructive portrait of Tiger – or whether stymieing any talk of a permanent Tiger demise with a five-shot win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the lessons of Tiger remain.
If you give Tiger a stage to flex on, eventually he will flex.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Tiger chose the week of the Haney book and his last tournament before the Masters to put together the entirety of the Sean Foley golf swing and unveil its ball-controlling glories. Or, more likely, perhaps it was because of those two things – the book and the azaleas – that Tiger was able to summon up "The Package," as Haney calls it in the book, or "the mystery,” another phrase Haney uses to describe Tiger's ability to stand tallest at the most important times.
So much of it was familiar: the red shirt, the seventh win at Bay Hill and, perhaps most notably, the shrinking of competitors. Credit to The Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee who pointed out that every challenger, whether Jason Dufner (77) or Charlie Wi (76) on Saturday, or Graeme McDowell (74), Ernie Els (75) or Ian Poulter (74) on Sunday, drowned in Tiger's wake. Tiger went 65-70 on the weekend.
Taking Chamblee's cue, we are left with a question going forward: Does this mean the intimidation – the Tiger aura, the atmosphere where his presence on the leaderboard means contenders shrivel up – is back?
As a weekly pontificator in this slice of cyberspace, I have often conjectured that Tiger would win again, that he would reclaim No. 1 and that he still had a 50-50 shot at toppling Jack Nicklaus' all-time record for major championships. My reasoning always included the following: At 36, Tiger remains relatively young; and with perhaps 10 years of great golf in front of him, 40 major opportunities could surely yield five wins, especially given his comfort level at Augusta National.
On the flip side, however, I included the caveat: He may break Jack's mark, but he will never, ever be Tiger Woods 1.0 (71 wins and 14 majors before age 34) again. A new generation of players, led by Rory McIlroy, would look at Tiger the way young rockers look at Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen: with respect, but with knowledge that the graybeards are past their prime.
The Escalade into the hydrant, the loss of image, endorsements and family, and perhaps most important, the disappearance of his putter and the emergence of a chronic knee injury meant fellow competitors would never fear him again as they once did. At least that's how I saw it.
But something in "The Big Miss" resonated. Haney details Tiger's lifelong obsession with the golf swing and ball flight, so much so that you forget all the other white noise that surrounds him, including our dime-store psychology that he was damaged goods. Reading the book reminds you that at his core, Tiger Woods is a golfer and won't stop for early retirement or other interests or to play minor-league baseball. True, his military obsession, particularly after his father's death, came close to derailing his focus, but Haney's explicit description of how Tiger's golf credo is about the chase for greatness that this pursuit of perfection reminds you that every tinker of his swing is a means to that end, droughts be damned. It's why he's on his third golf swing and never settled for the Nicklaus "See Jack Grout Once a Year" plan.
Digesting that information and watching him drive the ball around Bay Hill with some of the most definitive authority of his career made me guess that Tiger feels rejuvenated with Foley's instruction. Haney writes that Tiger would be bored with a "maintenance" plan on his golf swing, that he gets juiced to learn something new – to re-define his swing. Instead of seeing it as a negative – this switching of instructors – Tiger keeps his gas tank full by taking on new things.
And watching that ball flight around Bay Hill? Being ranked No. 1 in the field in total driving? Playing from the fairway almost every hole? A 35-hole streak of greens hit in regulation? Goodness gracious. It was some of the most gorgeous golf Tiger has played since his Haney heyday.
Yes, the putter and the knee remain the biggest questions. But here are more questions:
Can the re-emergence of Tiger break Rory, as it did Sergio and Ernie?
Can the re-emergence of Tiger stifle Phil Mickelson's recent mastery over Woods?
Can the re-emergence of Tiger surpass all our expectations and restart the greatest comeback in golf since Ben Hogan, post-car accident?
We're tantalized. The answers will come.
Scorecard of the week
67-68-69-70 –14-under 274, Yani Tseng, winner, LPGA KIA Classic, La Costa Resort, Carlsbad, Calif.
Meanwhile, in the "Female Tiger" department …
I should invoke a special "Scorecard of the Week, Yani Tseng Division" rule, because the 23-year-old sensation may deserve her own stage every tournament she plays.
Which statistic should we cull? It's her third win in five events this year. It's her second consecutive win. It's her 15th LPGA Tour title. Only Nancy Lopez, at age 22, won more times on the LPGA at a younger age. Oh, and Annika Sorenstam at age 23? She had zero wins. She finished with 72.
Yani Tseng, the world is yours, kid. Now, for your next trick, get somebody to pay attention. Can we throw her a Sports Illustrated cover, or a Yahoo! front page image? Hook a sister up!
Broadcast moment of the week
"No, golf is not a respecter of persons. The greatest part about golf is, it is what it is. It's not sentimental. The bottom line is, he didn't make it." – Johnny Miller, NBC, answering in the negative on the question of whether Ernie Els should get a special invitation to the 2012 Masters.
Good ole warm, cuddly Johnny Miller.
Then again, his point has merit – because merit is what he's talking about. In a sports world where baseball players draw monstrous, multi-million dollar salaries well after being cut, released or traded, golf remains the sport where the scales of justice balance out. Shank balls all over the yard yet still expect adulation and big paydays? Try again. This is golf. The golf gods don't do Hallmark cards.
Els keeps trying to huff and puff and blow that Masters house down, but his two-year spiral out of the world top 50 and lack of exemptions otherwise means he wakes up this morning still without an invite to the ball. The blown lead and missed short putts two weeks ago at Innisbrook will haunt him, surely. And any attempt to win at Bay Hill was thwarted by the force known as Tiger. Even a second-place finish, which would have likely put Els into the top 50, was well out of the Big Easy's reach after a disappointing Sunday 75. He tumbled to a seven-way tie for fourth place, eight shots behnd Tiger and three shots behind McDowell's runner-up. At 58th in the world rankings, Els has his nose pressed up against the Masters bakery window, unable to taste the warm peach cobbler inside.
Ernie's only hope is to win at Houston this week. It's not an outrageous proposition, given his top-10s the last two weeks. But somewhere deep down, this grind has to be wearing away at him. In "The Big Miss," Haney writes that Tiger firmly believes he "broke" Els with a series of devastating defeats in the early 2000s. It's probably true. Els won one major after the launch of the Tiger legend in 2000 and likely had the talent and opportunity to win three or four more. It's still a Hall of Fame career, and the golf swing remains artful. But golf will only give you so much credit for aesthetics. Miller acknowledged as much with his comments, and unless Els pulls a rabbit out of his golf cap in Houston, the ruthless calibration of the game continues.
Mulligan of the week
We've discussed Tiger's effect on those around him and how for more than a decade players wobble on Sundays in his presence. But since Y.E. Yang slayed the dragon at Hazeltine in the 2009 PGA Championship, in what some scribes have called a Buster Douglas/Mike Tyson moment, we haven't seen too many players get the heebie jeebies around the erstwhile No. 1 player on Earth.
But there was Graeme McDowell on Sunday at Bay Hill, wobbling. This is a player who has won a major, been a Ryder Cup hero and drove a dagger into Tiger's heart with two cold-blooded putts at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, with Tiger standing just feet away, for the win.
Fast forward to Sunday. McDowell had staunched some bleeding and stabilized Tiger's lead at three strokes. Then, at the par-5 12th, Tiger's drive hooked left into a tree line. McDowell's drive was pure, and from the fairway a birdie seemed a likely thing. All he needed to do was lay up with an iron to a distance of his choosing, then do what these guys do: Hit a wedge to within eight feet and make the putt. With Tiger likely taking birdie out of the equation after his drive, the lead would have been down to two strokes and one birdie-bogey hole away from an all-square situation at the top.
Except, McDowell tried to muscle up with a 3-wood for some reason. It was an odd choice, and NBC first guessed it. Sure enough, McDowell hit the golf ball wrong and found a fairway bunker some 90 yards short, an awful turn of events. His third was poor, and after a chip and two putts, McDowell turned his birdie hole into a bogey 6. Good night, Irene.
So, in the interest of making Tiger sweat, let's go back out to that 12th fairway, remind McDowell that brain-freezes are a thing of the past around Tiger, club him down to a better lay up and … give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
The week before the Masters is always the party before the party, meaning it's the party you go to first just to fulfill an obligation before you head to the real bash later in the evening. That's pre-Masters week. I mean, it counts, there's real dough handed out and you can earn a trip to Augusta National with a win (do you hear me, Big Easy?), but everybody's mind is on the "cool kids" party next week.
Years ago, it was TPC Sugarloaf in Atlanta that hosted the pre-party. Now, it's the Shell Houston Open. And yes, we'll watch, but we'll also be impatiently checking our watches, hoping it's over soon so we can move on to the rager in Georgia.
Obviously, Ernie is the big story. He'll be there. So will McDowell, playing better golf of late. Unlike Tiger, who likes to go in the bunker the week before, Phil Mickelson loves to play the week prior to Augusta and won at Houston last year. Defending Masters champ Charl Schwartzel will play, too, as will Lee Westwood.
No Rory, though. Like Tiger, he'll be shadow-boxing in his locker room, shaking out the shoulders and getting ready for what could be one of the great Masters of our lifetimes.
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