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Time for Tiger Woods to change his stripes

August 5th, 2013 · 10 Comments

Tiger Woods has gone and done it.

He couldn’t be content to simply win the Bridgestone for the eighth time – he had to lap the field by seven shots, raising expectations to such lofty heights, at least amongst the media and the bettors, that Ladbrokes now has him at 3-1 for the PGA this week at Oak Hill in Rochester!

Those are the kind of odds that Woods drew back in the days when he actually won majors, not just gave some indication that he was ready to do so.

So, while an increasingly large percentage of golf fans believe that Woods is primed to win his record tying fifth PGA, and to prevent another shut out in the majors, as he did in 1999 and 2007 when he won Glory’s Last Shot, I wonder what the man himself thinks.

Woods’ big problem is that the major’s version of Woods can’t putt like the PGA Tour player can because the pressure of winning them has gotten to him. While he putts like a demon during those easy-for-him-to-now-win regular tour events, he just can’t “get the speed right” at the majors.

And so, despite his many tour wins (five in just this season) he is like a player trying to get the monkey off his back, one that is gaining weight, and one that has been resting on his shoulders for the last 17 big four competitions.

Since winning his last major in 2008, the closest Woods has come to winning (as measured by his position at the finish line) is three big shots – at the 2009 PGA and at the 2010 US Open – both of which he threw away on the back nine on Sunday. So, despite his claims that he’s “been in the mix” in half of the majors since Torrey in ’08, he actually has not.

The disconnect between Major Championship Woods and PGA Tour Woods really stands out when his record in each category is put side by side. He is, of course, that well documented 0 for 17 in the majors. At the same time, he is 14 for 51 in regular PGA Tour events. Now you would think that a player who has already shown the mental strength and the game to win 14 majors would have sprinkled in, say, at least 2-3 more within those 14 tour wins.

But not this Tiger, for this one has changed his stripes for a brand of choking that leads to collapses at the majors well before the finish line is in sight. He knows it, we all know it, and he knows that we are watching to see what he does about it. Can this Tiger regain his bite, or has he lost his Sunday growl?

My advice is simple – dump that Sunday outfit (the red shirt and black pants) for something that signals the birth of a new Tiger, one armed with his Foley Swing, a Zen like approach to putting, and the belief that the majors are his birthright, and that no one is going to deny him, least of all himself.

Tags: 2008 US Open Coverage · 2009 Masters Coverage · Challengers · The Majors · Tiger vs. Jack

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Aug 5, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    I don’t ENTIRELY disagree with your take on this (so . . . progress?).

    Here’s where I agree: Tiger has placed a lot of pressure on himself to win a major and this has probably hurt his chances of winning one over the last few years. And if we define “choking” as succumbing to pressure, then I suppose by definition Tiger has “choked” in the majors. (However, I don’t really use the term pejoratively.)

    Where I disagree: I think you greatly overstate the extent of Tiger’s haplessness in the majors. If I recall correctly, you agreed with me at the time that if Tiger’s ball hadn’t struck the flagstick on 15 on Friday at Augusta, he probably would have won that Masters this year. Hitting the flagstick was not “choking.”

    In any case, finishing within 3 shots of the winning score or being within, say, a shot of the 54-hole lead IS close. It’s not as if Tiger has been completely out of contention in every single major.

    I also think you are just reading too much into his failure to win what amounts to a small sample of championships. Even in Tiger’s heyday, he lost majors. Even if Tiger, despite injuries, personal problems, and inactivity, had been expected to win say 15% of his majors — which would be enormously high percentage, actually compared to about any other player in golf history — it would still not be all that statistically shocking for him to go 0 for 20. Baseball players with a true talent level of say .300 BA go 0-20 without it ever becoming front-page news.

    Again on pressure: Let’s not forget that Tiger isn’t the only player who is subject to the pressure of winning a major, or subject to mental stresses generally. What about Lee Westwood, to cite a recent example? What about Rory McIlroy?

    My point is, if Tiger is currently at least ONE of the very best golfers playing today (which I think is a gross understatement), and his only problem is that he is subject to feeling the pressure down the stretch at a major, then he STILL has a really good chance of winning the PGA, because every player in the field who is good enough to win is also going to feel the pressure that comes with that potentiality.

    Here’s my bottom line punditry: Tiger will continue to contend in majors, and the pressure will continue to mount to win . . . and then he’ll have a week where it all comes together and he wins. And then, with the pressure relieved, he will win some more.

    That could all start this week, or it’ll go into next year. But if he continues to play at this level, he’s not going to be shut out of the majors forever. And once the shutout ends, what’s to stop him from winning a few more?

  • 2 Phil // Aug 6, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    BD, If Tiger had not hit the flag, he might have tied for first, assuming he made a 4 on 15. But his winning also assumes that he would have hung in there with the lead – I submit that this version of Tiger would have found another way to lose if his ball had not hit the flag. 0 for 17 in the majors cannot be compared to a hitter going 0 for 20 – it is more like him going 17 holes without a birdie. Through 2008 he won 28% of his starts in the majors as a pro. With a winning % this high, his chances of NOT winning one of the next 17 are 1 in 265 (I did the math). Those are long odds – more realistically, he did not win not because of the fickle nature of sports, which can cause a hitter to fail to get a hit for X at bats, but rather because he lost his closing skills – a new state of being that commenced with the 2009 PGA. I do agree that if and when he wins #15, that #s 16 and 17 will come within a couple of years. As for #18 and #19 – well, since he has shown that he feels the pressure, they may never happen.

  • 3 BD // Aug 6, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Aren’t you forgetting Tiger’s injuries, swing changes, and personal problems? There was a considerable stretch in which it was pretty clear Woods wasn’t going to be all that competitive. I don’t think you can look at that period in context and say that the reason he wasn’t winning was just a flat-out loss of his ability to close. There was a lot more going on than that.

  • 4 BD // Aug 7, 2013 at 5:23 am

    I wanted to make this point, too: You’ve been critical of Tiger for not being able to win a major recently due to all the pressure he is dealing with on that front. I would just point that, as far as can tell, Jack Nicklaus was never once under any pressure to win a major. He won the U.S. Open as his first win and simply never had to go through a time when people were scrutinizing his progress toward a particular number of majors. Jack himself has explained that he wasn’t even AWARE of how many majors he had won — that’s how little the number mattered in his day.

    If Tiger gets to 18, he will have gotten there through a much more tortuous mental ordeal than Jack ever faced, similar to how Roger Maris’ march to 61 HRs involved a lot of pressure that Babe Ruth never had to deal with at all.

  • 5 Phil // Aug 7, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I am well aware of Tiger’s history. Despite his issues, he mostly either came close enough when he did play to indicate that he was feeling well enough to compete at majors, or he sat out the majors when his injuries – hence, they are not part of the 17 major long slump.
    Tiger Woods – Strokes Behind the Winner
    2009 – 4 – 4 – MC – 3
    2010 – 5 – 3 – DP – DP
    2011 – 4 – DP – DP – MC
    2012 – 15 – 6 – 4 – 11
    2013 – 4 – 13 – 5
    As you can see, during his injury years (2010-2011), when he did play, he finished close to the winner in 3 of 4 majors. He was well enough to win 3 PGA Tour events in 2012 and 5 this year with no majors – once again showcasing the difference between Tour Woods and Majors Woods.
    As for swing changes, that is all on Tiger. Part of being the Best Ever is being smart about the swing. That he keeps changing it in his quest to become better is no excuse for poor results. Nicklaus, in contrast, was FAR more intelligent about his swing, needing only occasional tune ups throughout most of his career.

    Now, for Nicklaus and the pressure he felt. It was there – how could there be any more pressure than taking on the King to win your first major? Nicklaus’ memory often fails him, and no more so when it comes to talking about his pursuit of Jones. You should read his bio, My Story (1997) where he talks about the pressure of passing Jones, and how he blew a few majors before setting the new record. The notion that Nicklaus, a history oriented golfer who idolized Jones, was oblivious to his total majors won at any point in time is ridiculous – it is hard for me to imagine that he would ever say something so – well, stupid. Now. Nicklaus let off the pedal a bit once he felt he had passed Jones. If he had had a larger target – say 18 – he would have likely won even more majors.

  • 6 BD // Aug 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Ridiculous or not, that’s what he said on the Feherty show a few months ago. I don’t have an exact quote, but he clearly indicated that he wasn’t aware that he had tied or was about to tie (or surpass; I’m not sure which) Jones until some reporter brought that fact to his attention.

    This clearly constitutes a difference between the careers of Nicklaus and Woods. Nicklaus never had any particular pressure to win any major. We can speculate how he would have contended with such pressure, but we’ll never know for sure because Jack simply never had to prove it.

    Also, I guess I needed to be clearer in making my point about Tiger and the 0-for-17. Your take on it seems to be that, at some point after the 2008 season, Tiger simply lost the ability to close out majors, and this is why he has gone 0 for 17 since. I’m simply saying, no, the big reason he went 0-fer a lot of those majors had to do with injuries, swing changes, divorce, scandal, etc. I would also add that the big reason he didn’t win the Masters in 2013 is that his approach was so precise on 15, it hit the flagstick, ultimately costing him 4 strokes. That championship, in particular, does not constitute any evidence of Tiger’s supposed inability to win majors because of the loss of a closing ability.

    I would agree, with you, btw, that if Tiger’s march to 18 was delayed by swing changes, then that’s his fault for making swing changes. But making swing changes is not the same thing as losing whatever talent one has for closing out majors, which is the argument I was addressing.

    In any event, I’m personally of the opinion that Tiger is NOW fully capable of winning a major, something that was not necessarily true for much of the last 5 years. That’s not to say he will in fact win this week, but I think his chances are about where they “should” be in relation to his overall career standard. I don’t think he’s hobbled by injuries, tortured by personal problems, or still trying to groove his new swing. I guess what I’m saying is, any excuse those factors provided in the past or no longer seem very valid. For that reason, if he goes 0-for-17 now, we’d have to look for some other reason for that continued phase of his majors drought. I just can’t look at the whole stretch as consisting of one long, continuous stretch of a perfectly “normal” Tiger who “should have” been winning 3-4 majors. That ignores a lot of recent history, IMO.

  • 7 Phil // Aug 7, 2013 at 10:23 am

    BD – Your first two paragraphs are simply not true. You completely ignored what I said – in his bio, Nicklaus clearly stated that the pressure of passing Jones got to him in several majors before he finally set the record. I would tend to believe what he said 16 years ago in a book for print when he was that much closer to the event than some ramblings from a much older version who often forgets even his own history. Furthermore, Nicklaus had a lower target. Tiger had no problem racing to 14 majors – then the pressure hit him. If Nicklaus’ record was 14, perhaps he would have started choking in the majors after winning 11-12, not 14. All of this so-called pressure in chasing the record is a two edged sword. For some it is a reason to choke, for others it is a motivator. For Woods its been both – Nicklaus’ record helped propel him to 14 with little apparent problem – then the realization that he was getting close hit him. This is very similar to a player who is well back after 54 holes in a major, starts out hot, then realizes that they are in contention – and their whole game changes as they begin to fade back down the leaderboard. In a larger sense, this is Woods’ big problem.

    As he has said repeatedly, he has been in the mix at half of those 17 majors (I am not so sure about that) and has “not got it done.” There are numerous experts in the media, not just me, who have repeatedly made mention of Tiger’s poor performance in the majors on the weekends when he had played his way into contention after 36 holes (the 2012 US Open and the 2012 BO are prime examples.

  • 8 BD // Aug 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I read Jack’s book and I just don’t remember his recounting an enormous amount of pressure approaching Jones’ record. I’ll have to find the book and check that. Meanwhile, I found his quote about not counting his majors. He said he didn’t count them at all until it was pointed out to him be Bob Green of the AP that he had hit double digits.

    Two points stand out: First, whether or not Nicklaus personally felt a lot of pressure as he neared Jones’ record of 13, the attention placed on that record quest was nothing like Tiger is facing in regard to Jack’s record. In Tiger’s case, this is something that he HAS to do in order not to be defined as a disappointment in a lot of circles. In Jack’s case, he wasn’t presented with the number “18″ and told, “you must win this many.” (Note also the fact that the pressure to win 18 is inherently greater than the pressure to win 13 for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to win 13 than 18.)

    Second, it’s interesting the the relevant record for Jack was Jones’ 13 majors, which of course includes a bunch of US and British Amateurs. This shows that, in Jack’s day, being GOAT wasn’t merely synonymous with accumulating the most professional majors.

  • 9 Phil // Aug 9, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Hi BD, Go to page 303 and you will discover that Nicklaus was well aware of what he was doing from even before he turned pro – he totally refutes his silly statement that he was unaware of how many majors he had won. Why he ever said that he wasn’t counting remains a mystery to me.
    As for the pressure, I think that Nicklaus was hurt by golf’s historians, who do not count Hagen’s Western Opens. If they had, he would have had a 16 major mountain to climb, and would have had a greater level of motivation.
    As for Woods, he has certainly had far more media scrutiny than Nicklaus, but this did not stop him from racing to 14 majors. In fact, he brought the pressure on himself by revealing that he had posted Nicklaus’ records on his wall. Besides, what has pressure got to do with hitting a ball if you are the Best Ever and have a mental game befitting of a Best Ever player. Perhaps the truth is that Woods is not quite as mentally strong as the media has led many of us to believe.
    The whole GOAT issue and what is a major and when is one of the most ridiculous features of golf history. It should be pro majors only – amateur majors being in a separate category.

  • 10 BD // Aug 12, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I only brought up the issue of pressure because you alleged that Tiger has been “choking” in majors due to the pressure winning no. 15. It seemed fair to point out that Jack never had to deal with that level of pressure, so we don’t know how he would have handled it.

    As for the question of what is a major and that question’s relationship to the GOAT issue, I think your frustration over this illustrates why trying to use major championships as the sole criterion for determining GOAT is wrong. How can GOAT be solely determined by professional majors when the nature of major championship competition has changed so much over the years? As you know, the modern quartet of majors wasn’t established until 1958 (?). Before that, we had amateur events that were “majors” (thus excluding Hagen, Sarazen, et al); we had arguably the best player in the world (Bobby Jones) ineligible to compete in the PGA; we had the issue with the Western Open; and we had the fact that players could not play in both the PGA and the Open Championship due to a scheduling conflict and logistical problems.

    Moreover, the majors of today have evolved substantially from what they were even AFTER 1958. In the ’60s and ’70s, we still didn’t have universal participation of the top Americans in the Open Championship. And, of course, we didn’t have universal participation by the top Europeans in the American majors.

    Now, with all the money involved in the game and the proliferation of private jets, every single major is contested by every elite player in the world. And now, largely BECAUSE of Jack Nicklaus, the emphasis being placed on the majors is much greater than it was when he could trek across the Atlantic with literally only ten or so other Americans and take home the Claret Jug.

    I just think it’s a fantasy to assume that if a young Jack Nicklaus came out today, in this current competitive environment, he would win 18 majors. I’m not sure how many he would win, but it sure as heck wouldn’t be 18.

    That’s not to say that Jack doesn’t have a strong case for GOAT, just that using professional major wins as the sole criterion for that title doesn’t make a lot of sense. We need to look at the overall career in the context of the era in which the player played. The fact that golf has changed so much over the years makes it especially important to put each player’s career in its proper historical context.

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