Which Tiger will show up in 2011?
Tiger Woods changed his life and swing but not his victory totals in 2010. His dark season post sex scandal featured myriad loss – of dignity, privacy, family, money, aura and No. 1 ranking. For the first time, it also brought defeat in every tournament he entered.
Hence the central question about the 2011 PGA Tour is: Which Woods will show up? The one who has won 71 Tour titles and 14 major championships and barricaded others from the trophy stand? The inconsistent one who had but two top-10 finishes last year? Or, perhaps most likely, someone in between?
In ’10, we witnessed professional golf as it might have unfolded had Woods never been born. Woods having fallen back to the pack, we saw parity and lack of separation. Until the final regular-season week, no one had won more than twice.
Woods is 35 now, bruised but rehabbed, exposed as a human but still motivated by the dangling carrot of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. His regression merely means golf in the stratosphere hasn’t been this unpredictable since 1996, the year he said hello to the world and then lifted it.
The mystique at least on sabbatical, other players now think they have a better chance to win. We’ve seen the line between hope and hopelessness; it’s a 6-1, 185-pound frame. That means competitive golf has been more exciting for fellow competitors if not for viewers.
Woods used to intimidate through low scores. The past season showed that not even he can do so from high rough or with a shaken psychological profile.
The sense here is that a healing Woods will regain his focus in this season of renewal. These are gut feelings. I don’t think he’ll ever be as dominant as he once was, but a reasonable guess is another decade of brilliance, at some level. His ’10 mess eventually could go down merely as an asterisk season on his career record.
For all his troubles on and off the course, he’s the only player to have finished in the top 28 in all four 2010 majors. That he did so with one wounded psyche tied behind his back bodes well for his immediate future. He’s no longer automatically considered the favorite in every tournament he enters, but that could return when clear thinking and a second-nature swing do.
At any rate, we’ll soon find out whether play time is over for everybody else. Whether that window to pad victory totals has closed or shrunk. So, for the moment, conjecture rules.
“I expect a big year out of him,” said Chris DiMarco, twice a major runner-up to Woods in 2005-06. “Until he doesn’t win for two years in a row, I’ll never write him off. He’s going through a lot of humility, where it’s tough to focus out there. The strongest part of Tiger’s game is his focus, and you could see his lack of focus. I fully expect to see him back winning and probably winning majors in 2011 and see him back in the top (world ranking) spot in the first trimester.”
After he and Hank Haney split in May, Woods began working with Sean Foley in August. It didn’t take Foley long to see the difference between Woods and his other students over the years.
“His most impressive thing is his ability to concentrate and focus,” Foley said.
And he joined when Woods supposedly was at his most scattered. After working with Woods at least a couple of times per week late last year, Foley can’t help but think things will get better once swing concepts and inner peace settle in.
“I’ve never been through anything like that, and I can only imagine,” Foley said. “My dad calls me Sunshine because he says I’m always happy. But I can’t imagine I’d have that nickname if I went through something like that.
“But based on my own experiences, time heals wounds, and you eventually put stuff in the background so it doesn’t control you.”
True, but a new landscape is in Woods’ foreground. The competition for the No. 1 ranking is confusion rather than the old foregone conclusion, what with Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer and others in the mix.
New No. 1 Westwood, 37, might be majorless but consistently has outplayed others in the premier events the past couple of years, with four top-3 finishes in his last five majors.
Kaymer, 26, has the tools, demeanor and now résumé (PGA victory and late-season hat trick) to project a force for years. Mickelson, 40, now has four majors and a clean bill of health after suffering psoriatic arthritis last summer.
Mickelson suffered pain in hip, ankle, elbow and shoulder joints and tendons, to the point he couldn’t walk when he woke up in the morning several days at the U.S. Open, where he nonetheless tied for fourth. His medication worked well, and his trainer Sean Cochran said recently, “I’ve seen zero restrictions in his practice and training for the last several weeks, no residual effect. He’s 100 percent good to go.”
So let the games begin. The opinions already have.
“I think you have to almost base the future on the past,” Foley said. “(Woods has) been No. 1 in the world for years. I wouldn’t expect anything different. Him being him, he’ll be back, with my help or anybody else’s help.”