Commentary

Tiger Woods no longer front-runner

Updated: July 23, 2010, 2:44 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

The expectation last weekend that Tiger Woods would chase down surprise British Open leader Louis Oosthuizen over the last two days at St. Andrews defied reason or recent evidence. After Woods shot a first-round 67 and hung on for a wind-blown second round of 73, everyone was waiting for Woods to take off after Oosthuizen on Saturday, same as they waited for Woods to reel in Dustin Johnson on the last day of this year's U.S. Open, same as they figured Woods would somehow rally to the top of the leaderboard on the final day of this year's Masters. But the takedowns never came. Honestly, we should have known they wouldn't.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesTiger Woods, playing on the final day of the British Open, surely can hear the clock ticking.

In the 11 years that Woods dominated golf (the swing change in 2004 and knee injury in 2008 cut out some time), he has been the greatest front-runner the sport has ever seen. Every major championship that Woods has won -- all 14 of them -- came after he started with the lead on Sunday. Overall, only six of Woods' 71 PGA Tour career titles have come when he was trailing by three shots or more entering the final round. So Woods' MO is pretty established: He has never been a dramatic comeback artist. Woods can win tournaments going away, win on one good leg, win while coddling a lead like some wet nurse protecting a swaddled baby, or win by managing the course and managing himself to eke out a win when he's just a shot or two back. He used to intimidate opponents just by showing up.

But ask Woods to find something within himself and rally to win when he's stuck in a prohibitive hole? Oddly, that's hardly ever happened. Which makes you wonder...

How does that career-long trait extrapolate to Woods' chances of reviving his post-scandal career?

It's an interesting question because it's not a factor that most handicappers are taking into account in their rush to downgrade Woods' chances of recapturing his past dominance or overtaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors after his 23rd-place finish at St. Andrew's.

The left knee that Woods has had surgically repaired four times always gets mentioned as a concern. So do the actuarial charts that show most golfers, even the greats, rarely win majors after the age of 36. The notable exceptions were Nicklaus and Gary Player, with four apiece.

The newest strike against Woods by sundown at St. Andrew's Sunday was Woods' inability to take advantage of the most favorable course rotation for the major championships that he's likely to see in the next 10 years. The 2010 schedule seemed perfectly set up for him: Woods is always a threat at The Masters, which he has won four times. Then he was supposed to dominate at Pebble Beach, site of this year's U.S. Open and the venue where he confirmed his greatness as a young man with his 15-stroke victory in 2000. From there, it would be on to St. Andrews, a place where he'd won the last two times.

Tiger Woods
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesRather than charging to the front, Tiger Woods receded into the background in the final round at the U.S. Open.

The thinking was Woods had a great chance to collect two, possibly three more majors this year and make a final push to break Nicklaus' record in 2011. A couple of years ago, even Nicklaus was fatalistic about it.

Then Woods crashed into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving Day.

His serial infidelities became public.

You know the rest.

Woods has been a lot of things in his career: child prodigy, pro phenom, a promise fulfilled, challenger to Nicklaus as best ever. But an underdog? No. If the label has ever been applied to Woods, it's hard to remember when.

Woods has been golf's front-runner for so long, being the front-runner seems to be all he knows.

Other superstar athletes sometimes admit that the rare chance to compete when they're not expected to win is a nice change, maybe even something of a relief.

But there's no indication that Woods is temperamentally built that way, either.

Woods is winless in his seven starts this year, his longest drought since he didn't win until his ninth start of 1998, and nearly every one of his starts has featured some mini-tempest or melodrama or unflattering aside. He remains no comeback artist.

He missed the cut at Quail Hollow and was accused of quitting after a desultory Friday performance that included a four-putt at 15. Woods finished fourth at the Masters, where he wasn't a factor on Sunday, and withdrew from The Players Championship with a neck problem that he hasn't complained about since. He finished 19th at Nicklaus' tournament in Dublin, Ohio, and staggered home in 46th place as defending champ of the AT&T National.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for Golf WeekUnhappy with this shot at the Masters, Tiger Woods dropped his club.

But nothing topped Woods' petulance at the U.S. Open, the third straight major that was there for his taking in the final round, this time if he could just shoot even-par or 1-under on Sunday.

Instead, Woods faded to fourth again. He made excuses. The impenetrable mental makeup that made Woods so great has been replaced by a new fragility that Woods can't seem to shake. He griped about the condition of the poa annua greens. He threw around blame for his train-wreck final round that featured six bogeys on his first 12 holes.

Woods has lost his temper on the course before. This is what's changed: His angst is compounded now by the fact that he's less able to transcend setbacks because he's simply not as good as he was. Setbacks he used to slough off get turned into little public Greek tragedies now -- he stamps his feet, clutches his head, drops his club in anguish after bad shots, and then later insinuates the world or even those closest to him (including Steve Williams, his caddie of 11 years) are betraying him. He confessed to violating one of his oldest tenets: Totally commit to every shot you hit.

"I told Steve we made three mental mistakes and the only thing it cost us was a chance to win the U.S. Open," a seething Woods said in a brief TV interview, ticking off the shots he got talked into.

Woods is four months into his comeback and he still looks like just another guy in a baseball cap getting beat up by a tough course.

It's a far cry from the inscrutable, predatory Tiger we used to know.

That Tiger spent the better part of his amazing career embellishing and reveling in the aura of invincibility he'd built. That Tiger ruled out nothing. A Grand Slam sweep of the majors in the same year? "It's easily within reach," Woods said in 2008. The preposterous suggestion he might go completely undefeated that same year? "That's the plan," Woods said with a scythe-like grin after winning his four straight PGA tournaments, and 16 of his previous 30 starts.

That was the front-runner in Woods talking.

That guy isn't around anymore.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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