None of Tiger Woods’ 75 shots Sunday wound up in the San Andreas Fault. So that’s good, I guess. And near as I can tell, all his divots were replaced and all his bunkers raked. I’m groping, I know, looking for any conceivable positive in Woods’ nationally-televised nosedive in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. It’s a challenge, believe me — as much of a challenge, arguably, as the Chevron World Challenge.
The Chevron is that sort-of tournament Tiger won in December, the unofficial one he hosts at Sherwood Country Club in California. His one-stroke victory there, which broke a two-year drought, was thought to be a turning point for him, a major step in his comeback from injuries and self-inflicted misfortune (coupled with a swing overhaul). In classic Woodsian fashion, he birdied the last two holes to overtake Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champ. It was only a matter of time, you figured, before he did that in a real event.
Since then, though, he’s had two chances to do that in a real event — and failed to summon the magic either time. He shared the third-round lead at Abu Dhabi but missed 12 of 18 greens on Sunday to finish two strokes behind some Brit named Robert Rock. And at Pebble Beach, he was just one back with 13 holes to play but missed a maddening succession of short putts and wound up getting waxed by his playing partner, winner Phil Mickelson, by 11 shots. About the only way it could have been worse for Tiger is if he’d been outplayed by his pro-am teammate, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Mickelson gave Woods the kind of beatdown Nick Faldo gave Greg Norman at Augusta in 1996 (and, come to think of it, in the third round at St. Andrews in 1990). Bloody awful. The 72nd hole said it all. Lefty, with a three-stroke cushion, laid up on the par 5, knocked his approach shot close and rolled in the putt for a birdie. Tiger, meanwhile, got on in two … and settled for a par. (Or as Seve Ballesteros might have put it, “I miss, I miss, I make.”)
To watch Woods post the highest score in the top half of the field — on a day when victory was in reach — was to wonder whether the Old Tiger (or any facsimile thereof) will ever raise his fanged head again. Indeed, he’s beginning to resemble a closer in baseball who’s suddenly lost the ability to get the last guy out. He used to be Mariano Rivera; now he’s more like Brad Lidge 2009.
At Abu Dhabi, it was his ball-striking that undid him. At Pebble, it was his putter. In other words, nothing is holding up very well under pressure. Mickelson, on the other hand, came up with the kind of round Woods seems incapable of these days. He tore up the first part of the course (read: 5 under through six holes) but was able to keep it going with three more birdies — and a couple of lengthy par-saving putts — on the back nine.
Tiger got off to that kind of start Saturday (five birdies on the more difficult front side) but couldn’t sustain it. He also, you may recall, got off to that kind of start in the final round of the Masters last year (5 under on the front, the harder of the two nines) but petered out on the back. So it goes for him in Year 3 of his comeback. When he really needs to be Tiger Woods — or rather, the Tiger Woods his fans are so nostalgic for — he can’t seem to find him.
(It was kind of ironic that Clint Eastwood, the erstwhile mayor of Carmel, Calif., stopped by the CBS broadcast booth Sunday. Not long ago, Clint made a movie about a psychic — played by Matt Damon — who’s able to communicate with the dead. That’s probably what Woods needs right now: Damon to come hold his hands and help him get in touch with the Old Tiger.)
You keep telling yourself Woods is only 36. But greatness comes and greatness goes. Arnold Palmer stopped winning majors at 34. Tom Watson stopped winning much of anything at the same age. Are Tiger’s shaky final rounds and lipped-out gimmes indicative of a golfer in serious decline or merely one in the midst of a major transition? We should know a little better in June, when — flesh willing — he comes to Congressional for the AT&T National. But what happened at Pebble Beach, with Tiger once again crashing on the rocks, isn’t exactly an encouraging sign.