Is Tiger's reign over? Don't think so
The latest golf rage? That's easy: choking down on a lob wedge and hacking away at Tiger Woods' 2009 majors record as if it were submerged in shin-high rough.
Everybody has a theory on why he hasn't hugged, smooched or embraced any major hardware since one-legging it through the U.S. Open nearly 14 months ago. Never mind the 14 big boys he won before his 33rd birthday. We're talking post-op Tiger, husband and father-of-two Tiger, receding-hairline Tiger.
Woods finished tied for sixth at the '09 Masters, tied for sixth again at the U.S. Open, and then didn't even make the cut at last week's Open Championship. That happens about as often as John Daly does a set of stomach crunches.
He has one more chance this year: the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Walk away without a Wanamaker Trophy, and it will be the first time since 2004 that Tiger has completed the Oh-fer Slam.
I'm not concerned about Eldrick, but others are. Then again, I picked him to win at Turnberry even after he missed the cut.
What once were whispers have slowly mushroomed into doubts, criticisms and questions about Woods' future major win total. You don't hear as much breathless talk about how Tiger could win 30 of them during his career. Instead, it's more like, "You think he'll still pass Jack Nicklaus' 18?"
Out of fairness, here are the eight reasons people think the era of Tiger domination is coming to an end:
1. It's time for Woods to fire swing coach Hank Haney.
The doubters: Did you see Tiger at Turnberry? He barely hit driver, and he still couldn't keep the ball in Scotland. Someone needs to send him a photo of what the fairways looked like.
Haney and Woods have had a nice run, but if he can't fix Charles Barkley's 18-piece takeaway, how will he repair whatever is going wrong with Tiger and his fast-twitch golf muscles? Everyone can see it -- Tiger is standing too far from the ball.
Anyway, Woods didn't even bring Haney to Turnberry. What does that tell you?
It's clear he's tuning Haney out. Tiger has gotten too technical, and it's all Hank's fault.
Reality: The golf firm of Woods & Haney already has won three of 10 tournaments this year, more than any other player. So he's batting .300, which works for me.
And just a reminder: Woods has won six majors with Haney.
Sure, Tiger is Haney's meal ticket, but the guy is fiercely loyal and committed to Woods, perhaps even to a fault on occasion. He understands Tiger, and, better yet, he understands Tiger's evolving swing. They won pre-knee operation, and they've won post-knee operation. And they'll win again.
2. Someone kidnapped Woods' putting stroke.
The doubters: Woods couldn't make a putt when he had to at the U.S. Open at Bethpage. Said so himself. He also putted poorly -- for him -- at Augusta National in 2008 and 2009. And he didn't do much on Turnberry's greens, either.
Reality: Fair enough -- Woods' putting hasn't been its usual spectacular self during the majors this year.
But if the tour pros had to pick one guy to make a putt when it absolutely counted, I guarantee you almost all of them would choose Tiger. Or put it this way: Do you think Woods would have missed the eight-footer that Tom Watson stabbed at on the final hole of regulation at Turnberry?
When in doubt, go to YouTube and watch Woods' tournament-winning putt at Bay Hill from earlier this season.
3. Tiger is losing his focus.
The doubters: How can you concentrate on making golf history when you're married, have two kids, own a yacht the size of the USS Nimitz, design and build golf courses on the side, and oversee the construction of a Florida estate that makes Hearst Castle look like a toolshed? Plus, he has to deal with the weight of being Tiger.
The guy has too many distractions in his golf bag. At some point, it catches up with you. It has caught up with Woods.
Reality: Another player had a pretty successful career while dealing with all those distractions. His name was Nicklaus.
Woods has won a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship since starting a family. He could have won this year's U.S. Open had he made more putts. In all, he has won 13 tournaments since Sam Alexis was born. So there.
4. He doesn't trust his surgically repaired knee.
The doubters: Look at him -- he still limps a little bit. He favors the knee. He'll never be the same. That's how it works with surgery.
Reality: You're right, you can't pretend the surgery hasn't had an effect on his swing. But as the knee continues to grow stronger, so will Woods' game. Anybody who has had ACL surgery and suffered through rehab (hello) knows this.
Anyway, I'll take Tiger relatively pain-free over the Tiger whose left knee used to sound like someone eating a bowl of Captain Crunch.
5. He's too big, too muscular.
The doubters: Yeah, he'd win a bar fight with anybody on the tour, but maybe he's gotten too strong and too cut.
Reality: I'm sorry -- people are worried that he's too athletic, that he looks too good in a shrink-wrapped red shirt? It's not as if he pulled a Barry Bonds and went from 185 pounds to Transformer size. He put on some muscle, but his waist is still the width of an umbrella handle.
6. The rest of the world has caught up to Tiger.
The doubters: Woods used to intimidate entire fields. Not anymore.
Reality: He might not scare them to death anymore, but during a tournament, every player in the field watches on the scoreboard what Tiger is doing. And feel free to tell me who will overtake Woods in the foreseeable future.
Phil Mickelson is ranked No. 2 in the world, but he has a few other things on his mind these days. Plus, he'll turn 40 in June.
Vijay Singh is 46. Retief Goosen is 40. Ernie Els will turn 40 in October. Anthony Kim has never finished ahead of Tiger in a tournament. Rory McIlroy has game but remains a work in progress. Sergio Garcia still hasn't won a major.
7. Woods needs a new caddie.
The doubters: Caddies are hired to be fired. Steve Williams and Tiger were a great team, but sometimes Batman needs a new Robin.
Don't worry about Steve. He races cars, wrote a book, has a family of his own, made a boatload of money and will be unemployed for about one second if he and Woods part ways.
Reality: Yes, of course, let's blame it on the guy who always has had Tiger's back. Williams is a world-class caddie who has earned Woods' trust. He's not going anywhere any time soon.
8. Tiger puts too much pressure on himself.
The doubters: The only tournaments that absolutely matter to Woods are the majors so that he can pass Nicklaus. So basically, he gets four cracks a year at winning something important. And when it doesn't happen, look out: club slamming, a four-letter-word curse festival, some long-distance spitting. In short, Tiger has left himself no margin of error.
Reality: The only tournaments that absolutely matter to Woods are the majors. And the doubters are right -- he seems to have played a little tighter during these recent majors. It's as if every shot has to be perfect. And if it isn't, the Woods lava flow begins.
And yet, despite it all, Woods is still the best player on the planet. And here's how you know. You have the first pick in the PGA Championship golf pool. Whom would you take No. 1?
I thought so.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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