This is just … weird.
So weird, it may be time for the first outrageous proclamation of 2009: Are we now in the Post-Tiger Era?
Now, now, now. That's just ridiculous. Somebody put away the nitrous oxide. Tiger Woods has three consecutive tournament finishes in which he has a real chance to win late on Sunday – the Masters, Quail Hollow and now The Players Championship – and doesn't win any of them, and we wind up taking outrageous leaps of logic.
Like, this one: With his swing awry and his inability to put the ball in the fairway, is it time to fire swing coach Hank Haney and find a new set of eyes?
Now, now, now. That's just ridiculous. (Or is it?) Tiger has 17 consecutive worldwide top-10s, an amazing streak of brilliance. He found something late in the day that allowed him to go 2 under on the finishing nine.
Still, Tiger shot a 73 in the final pairing at a significant championship. With the leaderboard a mess of opportunity early, Tiger shot 38 on the front. With an early chance to seize momentum, Tiger hit his second shot on No. 2 into the water, an almost inexcusable push to the right, well short of its intended target.
Oh, wait. It was not a push. It was a "spinner" to the right. Tiger said as much to Roger Maltbie after his disappointing day. "I kept hitting spinners to the right," he said, and did so with some self-deprecating humor, granting the interview after what he called a "long and disappointing day."
We're being reminded some things about Tiger: He loses at Quail Hollow, shooting 72 in the final round, and he hangs around for a televised shake with winner Sean O'Hair. He loses at Sawgrass, and he hangs around to tell Maltbie and the world about his spinners. But he loses at Augusta National, bogeying 17 and 18, and he's off to the parking lot, leaving a trail of furious steam in his wake.
Reminder: Tiger does majors. The other stuff is just for kicks.
Which is why any outrageous, ludicrous, hysterical proclamations – we're in the post-Tiger Era; the Tiger-Haney relationship is on shaky ground – must be couched in this important fact: Tiger's real test of his skill and shot making and competitive desire will come a month from now, at Bethpage's U.S. Open. He wins there, and he makes a mockery of columns like these. As my buddy's Italian-American grandpa from Brooklyn used to say: "It's a 'could happen.' "
Then again, Angel Cabrera at Augusta, Sean O'Hair at Quail Hollow, and now Henrik Stenson at Sawgrass did happen. One wonders if players in '09 don't quake in their soft spikes as much as they did, say, eight years ago, when Tiger was crafting the "Four Majors: Living Room Collection" furniture set.
And Haney is doing "The Haney Project" on The Golf Channel, futzing around with Charles Barkley while his guy is spinning shots all over Sawgrass. I don't have a direct line to Tiger's camp, so for all I know Tiger OK'd the whole deal, has zero problem with Haney filming a TV project likely taped way back when Tiger was rehabilitating his surgically reconstructed knee, but I do know this: It's sort of a bad look.
We also know this: The last time a member of Team Tiger started doing side projects, Fluff Cowan started looping for Jim Furyk.
Moreover, Tiger's body language on the golf course the last three events has been tough to watch. It's hard to imagine somebody having less fun playing golf than Tiger when he spins a shot right. Shoulder slump? Check. Resigned drop of club in follow-through? Check. Hand run slowly over face in despair? Check.
If you had Tiger as a weekend four ball partner, you'd sidle up to another in your group and mutter: "Who invited Captain Bringdown and the Buzzkills?"
The NBC voices were appropriately concerned with the lack of Tiger on their TV. Minutes would go by without showing the guy in red. Gary Koch went so far as to say, "I've never quite seen him play this way on a Sunday when he had a chance to win." Johnny Miller, naturally, piled on with some glib analysis, offering: "He just can't hit it" or "He didn't hit shots like that five times in the year 2000" or "You know how they say some guys make golf look easy? He's not making it look easy."
To which we say: Correct, correct and correct.
So we left Sawgrass with this amazing thought: Tiger Woods was cluttering up the joint. The party was up ahead, with Sweden's Henrik Stenson announcing to America that, yes, he's been a top-10 ranked player in the world, and yes, Henrik Stenson will be a factor at major championships for the next half-decade.
And we are left with questions. About the Post-Tiger Era. About Hank Haney's future. And about Tiger's relationship with The Players Championship.
If the past is any indication, he may just start skipping this shindig. After all, there are events and courses that are Kryptonite to Tiger. He went 0 for 9 at Riviera and never plays there anymore. He went 1 for 9 at the Byron Nelson, and once Lord Byron passed away, doesn't play there anymore, either. He went 1 for 6 at Pebble Beach, and now Bill Murray works in a Tiger-free zone.
Tiger is now 1 for 11 at Sawgrass. You can see the text message to Tim Finchem already: "Commish: Am busy next May. Taking Sam and Charlie yachting. See you at the Memorial. T-Dub."
Broadcast moment of the week
• "Some people out there wonder if his biceps aren't getting too big. Seriously. We're not trying to see how much you can bench press when you're trying to play golf." – Johnny Miller, on Tiger's physique.
Hmmm. Good stuff, Johnny Miller – aka the Charles Barkley of the PGA Tour, minus the off-set distractions. Miller and Barkley continue to set the standard of frank analysis combined with endless street cred, making for a potent cocktail.
Sometimes you do look at Tiger and think: Wait, what is going on with that body? Nobody is that big on tour, and that includes Camilo Villegas, who is probably 25 pounds lighter than Tiger.
I'm not going anywhere near any Tiger-Manny Ramirez comparisons, but it is interesting to look at Tiger's frame from his 1997 Masters win to the present day. The workouts are legendary, but when the wins don't follow, you're open to observations from the likes of Miller.
Then again, Babe Ruth started with the Boston Red Sox weighing 180 and left with the Boston Braves probably in the John Kruk-ian neighborhood of 240, so there is a history of legendary athletes gaining weight as they age. Right?
Scorecard of the week
• 68-69-73-66 – 276, 12 under, Henrik Stenson, champion, The Players Championship.
He started the day five strokes out of the lead and won by four. He's posted nine top-fives in his last 20 events worldwide. He even stripped down to his boxer briefs in a shameless attempt to get paparazzi to notice him – or to play a shot out of a watery hazard, one of the two.
Any way you cut it, Stenson, the Swede who hides behind shades much like his countrywoman Annika Sorenstam used to, is worth our attention. Then again, he was worth our attention when he won the 2007 Accenture Match Play. And when he won the 2007 Dubai Desert Classic. And when he entered the field ranked ninth in the world.
He's now fifth in the world.
The bottom line: When your U.S. Open and British Open office pools go around, and everyone is drafting Tiger and Phil and Sergio, be the guy who takes Stenson. And make that pick while wearing only your boxer briefs. They'll remember you.
Mulligan of the week
• Didn't you just know – no, wait, that deserves an italic – didn't you just know that of all the certainties heading into Sunday's final round, this was the most ironclad of all: Alex Cejka was not going to win The Players Championship.
It was just one of those things. A five-shot lead for a guy who hadn't won since 2002 meant the word "PRESSURE" was stamped on his golf ball, where "TITLEIST" usually resided. The only mystery was how he would self-immolate and how fast.
The answer came swiftly: on No. 1. He tugged his drive left, a sure sign of being quick under the gun. He caught a flier lie and airmailed the green. He did well to make bogey, but some jerk in my living room actually said out loud: "Cejka? More like Choke-a." Whoever said that is a total meanie, and he will remain nameless.
Did I mention I was watching The Players Championship alone?
It was Mother's Day, but Cejka cried "Uncle" early. By the time he drove into a bunker on four, then skulled his second shot into the water hazard, he was en route to a double bogey "6" and would use that negative momentum to bogey 5, 6 and, for good measure, 8.
Call it a front-nine 42, an 18-hole total of 79, and call it a round for which Cejka will forever be known. As in: "Do you know Alex Cejka, the golfer?" Answer: "Sure, he's the guy who had a five-shot lead at Sawgrass and shot 79. What about him?"
The empathy for Cejka runs so deep, we can't even call for a mulligan on a specific shot. We have to "mulligan" his entire round.
So, let's go back to the No. 1 tee, make it 2:25 pm Eastern time on Sunday, May 10, 2009 … and give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
• If I told you we were saddling up for San Antonio in May, your only reasonable response would likely be: "Why? Do you have Spurs playoff tickets?"
How about this for a double-dip: The Spurs, kings of the NBA spring, are out, and the PGA Tour is in. The Valero Texas Open, long a tournament hidden in the shrubbery of autumn, when everybody in Western Civilization is watching the NFL and nobody in his right mind is watching the PGA Tour's Fall Series, is ready for its close-up. Just to fire you up for the occasion: A players' poll years ago cited La Cantera as one of the worst golf courses on the PGA Tour circuit. Nothing like ratcheting down those expectations, golf fans.
Look, if Tiger isn't going to win anymore, we're going to have to get used to some disappointment.
- Henrik Stenson
- Hank Haney