And it’s not getting better.
As the British Open began, we all knew it could be the one that put Tiger back on top of the golf world. Royal St. Andrews is tailor-made for his game. He’d had top-four finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open. All he had to do to win in Scotland was drive it reasonably straight and make a few putts.
He drove it reasonably straight, but he couldn’t make any putts, not with the new putter and not with the old one that carried him to all but the first of his 14 major titles. He finished 13 shots behind first-time major winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.
Yogi Berra once said of baseball: “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” Had he been talking about putting in golf, he might have said: “One hundred percent of putting is 110 percent mental.”
Golf is a game of confidence to begin with, and putting is where that really shows up. Tiger didn’t win 14 majors because he was worried about where the ball was going to go. He made putts from everywhere because he believed when he hit them, they would go in the hole.
But the feeling goes away faster than it arrives, and good luck getting it back. You can’t wish it back, buy it back or pray it back. If you practice really, really hard, you will find the feeling comes a bit more often and stays a hole or two longer, but it won’t stick around. That goes for the pros the same as it does for you and me.
What makes people like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan different — what makes them the greatest to have played the game — is that they kept that feeling for years and sometimes decades. It’s not something that comes and goes. It’s always there.
When Nicklaus got into his 40s, his game declined just enough to where he wasn’t winning majors. But he never felt it. In his mind, he still believed every shot would go where he intended it to. And so, at the age of 46, he won his final major at Augusta. By that point in his life, he wasn’t the world’s greatest golfer. But he thought he was, which is why he won.
Tiger has felt that way about himself probably since he was 3. So there’s never been a time in his life when he didn’t feel better than his peers.
By extension, he started to see himself as the world’s greatest human being. In his mind, he could do no wrong. The same rules that apply to ordinary people did not apply to him. He could buy anything he wanted. He could go anywhere he wanted. He could marry the most gorgeous woman anybody had ever seen, and he could cheat on her, too. He could walk over people and they’d thank him for it.
It’s armchair psychology, and it's been said before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: When Tiger got caught cheating and went to a sex-addiction clinic, this is what was waiting for him. He sat with a group of fellow sinners and confessed that he was a pathetic worm who was powerless over his addiction.
When he finally talked to the media, all anyone cared about was whether he felt sorry enough; whether he fully appreciated what a disgusting person he had been.
No one knows if his time in therapy made him a better person. I strongly suspect it made him a worse golfer.
Great athletes — or artists or musicians or talk-show hosts — for the most part aren’t given to introspection. They have a deep and abiding belief in their own ability and rectitude. They make their own rules. They don’t sit in therapy groups and talk about what worms they are.
Admit you’re wrong in one part of your life, and there can be a carryover. Tiger thought he was perfect. He admitted he wasn’t. And ever since he hasn’t been able to do much of anything right on the golf course.
This is an increasingly desperate man we’re looking at. Tiger is a golfer working with a compromised support system, and it’s showing. His wife, who could be counted on to provide a cheering section at his tournaments, is gone. His swing coach, Hank Haney, dumped him in a fit of moral outrage over the star’s serial philandering.
And now he’s reduced to trying new putters, as if the club is to blame and not the person swinging it.
He doesn’t need a new putter. He needs his old confidence.
Watching him try to find it is turning into one of the greatest shows in sports.
Timeline of Tiger’s sex scandal
Timeline: A tabloid report, followed by an early morning car crash at Tiger Woods' Florida mansion, sets off a dark chapter in the pro golfer's life.
139th British Open
At St. Andrews, Scotland
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