Saturday, February 14, 2015

Tiger Woods’ leave of absence signals the end of a legendary career

Tiger Woods’ leave of absence signals the end of a legendary career

By Brendan Porath in SB Nation

In a career marked recently by lengthy absences, Tiger Woods' latest departure from the game of golf signals the most serious threat of it all coming to an abrupt end.
Even at his healthiest and best, Tiger Woods has played most of his career under an impossible standard. Every time he teed it up, he would draw ridiculous 5/1 odds to win, as if the rest of the 150-or-so golfers, random chance, and inevitable unfortunate bounces that happen in the game of golf did not exist.
His play, his accomplishments, and his own statements had set a standard that anything short of a win was failure and that chasing down Jack Nicklaus' majors record was the singular purpose of his career. Over the last decade, even the non-major wins that did not help inch the tally towards Nicklaus somehow became less impressive. Another player gets a World Golf Championship win at Firestone and we'll hail him as one of the best in the world, a favorite at the majors, and/or the next big thing. Tiger won again at Firestone? So what. He always wins there. Tiger accrued 10 and 15 times over the wins today that are enough for us to characterize a season as a career-year (or even an entire career as great). But Tiger's past achievements made it almost impossible to enjoy current success.
So how must it have felt last week at Torrey Pines, one of those of places he's dominated in the most natural and inevitable way, to walk out there, tee it up and know he was more likely to embarrass himself than win?
And that's what happened. There was the ghastly ground ball shank he hit on the range practicing on Wednesday.
Then there was the chip on his first hole of the tournament that he blasted some 40 feet past the cup like a high-handicapper just trying to get it on the green so he could put the wedges away and grab his putter. This indignity came before Tiger's butt deactivated and a back problem forced him to withdraw with another injury.
Woods looked physically broken yet again as he hobbled to a golf cart that could get him the hell off the property as fast as possible. But Wednesday night's announcement that he's taking a leave of absence has nothing to do with his latest physical setback. His game and his head were in shambles well before his butt. Tiger needs to figure out if he can play pro golf anymore, and do it out-of-view of TV cameras chronicling every horrendous and embarrassing shot.
So Tiger is going to head to range and the practice green at Medalist, his home club in the Jupiter area, and try to hash out whether he can perform the basic task of chipping a golf ball. Everything he's signaled over his past three starts is that the problem is the chipping yips. After chunking chip after chip at his own event in December, he started at the Phoenix Open by using mid-irons and a putter from just off the green, scenarios where he used to pull a sand wedge and expect to hole out.
Tiger was just trying to avoid having to chip and trying to roll it onto the green somewhere with a putter or 7-iron like he was some 65-year-old high-handicapper chopping it around on the weekend at his local muni. It was clear that this was a crippling mental block and the most dominant player in the history of the game was melting down in front of everyone.
It's unprecedented and uncomfortable to watch. One of Woods' closer friends, Notah Begay, who was with him Wednesday before the announcement, unofficially spoke for Tiger and filled in the areas between the lines of the sanitized statement. "It's very black and white there. His scores just aren't reflective of not just the kind of golf that Tiger Woods expects out of himself, but basically I don't think any PGA Tour player would expect, or make a PGA Tour player happy. ... It was embarrassing. I don't think there's an athlete that wouldn't have been embarrassed in any sport to go out and do what he did in front of the world."
With his game as bad as ever and his career in crisis, Woods' first move will be to fly to Colorado and watch his girlfriend's ski race. This is not the Tiger of old, who would go hits balls on the range all day in any weather and until his hands bled. He'll try to work it out at Medalist, but that comes next week after more time away "to spend time with the people that are important to me." In between the repeated nonsense about how his game was just the result of being between "release patterns" and his "glutes deactivating," Woods had one of his more (for him) relatable and human answers in a press conference last week.
I would say I practice much less now. One, I've been hurt, and two, I want to spend as much time as I can with my kids. I have split custody, so when I'm at home, I want to be home with them, take them to a soccer game or to school or to activities, whatever it is. I'm their dad.
I just have to manage my time practices differently. Over the years, especially now that they're getting a little older where they're getting more activities after school, that plays a role in my practice time and it's just so, it's just life. It's just the way it is. I would much rather have it that way than not be able to see my kids.
He's older, often injured, can't play competitive golf right now, but his priority is to hang out with his kids. That's how you get an indefinite leave of absence to try and work through things with more balance and less embarrassment. So when will we see him next?
The immediate future
There were rumors all day that something "major" would be coming down from Tiger, but what we got was an ambiguous and open-ended announcement. He did not foreclose playing at the Honda Classic in two weeks, which, if he played, would mean his leave of absence did nothing to alter his original schedule.
But unless a miracle occurs next week on the Medalist practice facility, he's not playing the Honda Classic. There was a range of estimates on how long this leave will run, but the one consensus is that he's out for the Honda. This announcement was most likely a signal to that tournament, which is played near his home and he's come to love, that he won't be making it this year.
Tiger almost certainly passing on the Honda Classic means he won't qualify for the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, another shocking sign of how far he's fallen. That's an event, like Torrey Pines and Firestone, that he's owned throughout his career and was always a guaranteed stop on his schedule. But thanks to a career-worst world ranking, the seven-time champion is not invited.
That leaves us with Bay Hill, another Tiger staple that he's also won eight times, as the only potential pre-Masters start. It's just over a month away, which doesn't seem like enough time to be confident that he has his short game settled. I would imagine that once he officially announces that next week that he's out of the Honda, we'll get more clarity on whether Bay Hill is going to happen. Given the tighter lies at that venue and the dwindling window to prepare, it doesn't seem like he'll have his chipping issues resolved in time.
The 2015 Masters
Opinions were all over the place Wednesday night, but most predicted that he wouldn't play the season's first major for the second straight year. The chipping yips are debilitating and never really leave you. Those who have had them say it's a long crawl from a deep and dark place just to be moderately competitive. Golf Channel reporter Tim Rosaforte said he thought this was going to be a two-to-three month thing and not a six-month thing. But Augusta National would not be the place to see if you're healed.
If Tiger struggled to chip on the soft and spongy TPC Scottsdale, the Masters would be a hellshow. You can make birdies and get around Augusta just fine with some deficiencies in your game. But not being able to chip from the tightest greenside lies onto the slipperiest putting surfaces in the world is not one of them. We're 55 days from the Masters and having his game "acceptable for tournament golf" would be pushing it.
Long term
Tiger was never going to be one of those players who kept teeing it up at an advanced age with little chance to win. He's not going to play on the senior tour or make appearances as a former great who is still pretty good. Here's Tiger at the 2007 Dubai Desert Classic:
I'll retire from this game when my best isn't good enough anymore, period. I couldn't handle it if I go out there and prepare and play my best and it's not good enough anymore. There's no reason to play anymore.
When I get to a point where my best is not good enough anymore, as I prepare and I practice and I get ready, and I know if I go out there and play the way I know I can play and it's just not good enough anymore, my skills have diminished that far, it's time for me to move on, rack the cue and go home.
He's been using this refrain for more than a decade now (see more here). Wednesday's announcement slightly toned down the standards to "acceptable tournament golf" and "compete at the highest level."
Let's assume Tiger figures out how to chip a golf ball again. Let's even assume he can figure out how to do it well and not just mask the underlying yips. Can his best even approach Rory McIlroy?
McIlroy is miles ahead of Tiger right now, and would be even if the 14-time major winner didn't have the yips. Rory is demolishing drives 330 to 350 yards and consistently right down the middle of the fairway. Tiger looks at the end of Rory's 2014 season and his start this year and, if he's not fully resigned, has to have significant doubt that he can compete with that.
The chunked and bladed chips were the gory highlights that everyone saw, but the rest of Tiger's game is bad, too. He's barely holding on with his tee shots, repeatedly bombing them off the course right and hiding the problem with temporary fixes like traps and blocks just to get the ball in the fairway. His club head speed is back up, but some of the swing mechanics that many fault for causing all his injuries are still there. So there's much more than just the chipping yips winding Tiger's career down right now.
Given the standards set by his past success, Woods will never get the luxury of fading slowly or quietly. His accomplishments and profile ensure he's going to have his every shot shown. Yes, he will go out to the range in private next week and chunk and blade some chip shots and try to figure out a consistent motion. And he may play the Masters because it's the biggest event in the game and he won't willfully pass it up again because he's too proud and competitive. Or that may be the reason this is all coming to an abrupt end and we never see him play tournament golf again.

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