Instructors at the Trump National Doral golf resort’s Jim McLean Golf School in Miami, Florida, held a vote at their staff meeting ahead of this weekend’s 2015 Masters Tournament. Tiger Woods had announced he planned to return to Augusta National for his first competitive tournament since February, and the golf pros, like everyone else in the world of golf, decided to debate how well he would fare.
The overwhelming majority of the school’s staffers, some 95 percent, said Woods would miss the cut entirely at Augusta – the same course where he had won a record four times when he was still a player to be feared. A couple of people decided Woods would make the cut, but would not contend for a major championship. Just one person predicted that he’d finish in the top 10. No one picked him to win.
“He’s lost his intimidating effect he had on other players. I’d watch him on the range here and other players would move out of his way and make circles around him and watch him practice here at Doral,” said Grayson Zacker, director of instruction at the Jim McLean Golf School. “They just don’t do that anymore. It’s ‘Move aside, Tiger.’”
Woods' return to the Masters comes with high stakes. His recent personal and athletic struggles have allowed the likes of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Jason Day to supplant him at pro golf’s pinnacle. Once considered arguably the most-marketable athlete in sports, Woods now ranks as golf's third-most-marketable star, behind McIlroy and Fowler, according to a recent Sports Business Daily survey. A strong showing at the Masters would go a long way toward re-establishing Woods as one of the game’s premier players. But to make the comeback possible, experts said Woods will need to get out of his own head, trust his instincts and recognize the limitations that come with his age.
Woods' loss of self-confidence was never more apparent than in the days and weeks before his game fell apart this year, when his once-vaunted short game became his biggest deterrent. Woods lost much of 2014 to recovery from surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his injured back, suffered after an awkward swing at the Cadillac Championship in March of that year.
He returned to action in late January at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona, where he missed the cut after he shot a career-worst 82 with inconsistent chipping in the tournament’s second round. The following week, recurrent back pain forced Woods to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in California after just 11 holes. He hasn’t played since.
The hyperpoised Woods who sank what some consider to be the greatest chip in tournament history on the 16th hole of the 2005 Masters, was gone. In his place was a player whose club pulled up chunks of turf when he tried to strike a ball from the rough.
Woods' issues began well before his trip to Arizona. Aside from a resurgence in 2013 that resulted in five tournament wins and a PGA Tour player of the year nod, Woods hasn't been the same player since his exhaustively documented 2009 infidelity scandal. He won 30 tournaments, including six majors, in the six years prior to the incident. He’s won just eight tournaments, none of which were majors, in the six years since.
Woods declared in a February statement that he would not come back to competitive golf until his game was “tournament-ready.” He had struggled with both his accuracy off the tee and his putting, but his real weakness was his short game. Woods’ former swing coach Hank Haney said in April that his short game struggles occurred not because of a mechanical issue, but due to the “chipping yips,” a well-known golf malady that experts attribute to a disconnect between mind and body.
“A lot of people don’t realize, when you have some surgery, it takes a while for the nerve endings to heal. There seems to be a bit of the gap between what the brain wants to do and what the body wants to do,” said David Leadbetter, a Florida-based golf instructor who has coached players to 19 major championships during his career. “When you’d had this trauma, it takes more than just a couple of months to put all of this together.”
Physically, Woods has dealt with the natural progression that any athlete experiences after 20 years in a professional sport. Decades of walking golf courses and the torque generated by a high-velocity golf swing have taken their toll on Tiger’s back and knees. At age 39, he’s past his physical prime. For a player like Woods, who has always struggled to keep his upper and lower body in sync, the cumulative effects of age and injury can wreak havoc on a golf swing, Leadbetter said.
Part of Woods’ problem before his February hiatus was his inability to accept the physical limitations that come with age, said Joe Rehor, director of golf at the renowned Bethpage Golf Courses in New York. When Woods last won the Masters in 2005, he averaged 316.1 yards per drive, good for second among all PGA Tour players. His driving accuracy, ranked 191st on tour, was far worse, but he made up for it with his mastery of the short game. But by 2013 and 2014, Woods’ drives averaged about 294 yards per drive, a middling figure among pro golfers.
“These guys all have egos. When you’re at the top of your game and all of a sudden you slip back to the middle of the pack, it affects your ego,” said Rehor. “I think a lot of what he’s doing is trying to recapture the past and he can’t do it with his body and mentally he can’t do it.”
'Conscious' Swing Mechanics
Even before his struggles began, Woods always tinkered with his mechanics. He’s had four different swing coaches and used three different swing techniques during his professional career, according to the Golf Channel. It’s rare for any top athlete to make that many drastic changes to their play, especially for someone who has won 79 PGA Tour events.
Woods’ latest change came last December. He hired swing coach Chris Como, who specializes in biomechanics, a study which seeks to streamline athletic movements to both improve play and prevent injury. It was a logical move for an aging superstar, but one that may have hurt his ability to stay loose.
“If you look at the great short game players, they’re very, very creative. He had that creativity. The problem is that when you’re working on your mechanics, you tend to lose that creativity,” Leadbetter said. “His swing became very mechanical, very conscious.”
Golf is a game of confidence. When mechanical adjustments fail to produce solid results on the course, players become self-conscious and lose their feel for their swing. This is especially true of the short game and putting, which are all about feel, said Dr. Joe Parent, a golf instructor and author of “Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game.”
When Woods enjoyed an unprecedented run of success in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, he was known both for his laser-like focus and his unshakable confidence. Inherent to his game was a belief that every shot he made was going to have the desired result.
“What I see that’s different in his putting is not his stroke. It’s his confidence. There’s a very subtle difference,” Parent said. “He’s trying to hole putts. Before, in his mind, they were already in. He believed they would go in.”
Woods, who for years was golf’s top-rated player, now holds a No. 111 world ranking. A report earlier this month claimed Woods shot a worst-ball 66, meaning he hit two balls every hole and played from the worst lie, at Medalist Golf Course in Florida.
“I worked my ass off,” Woods said of his game this week, according to USA Today Sports. “That’s the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard.”
Woods wouldn’t have decided to play at this year’s Masters, on golf’s biggest stage, if he hadn’t re-established some degree of confidence in his short game, Zacker said. He chipped well and shot a 1-over 73 in Thursday’s opening round, a surprisingly strong effort after his woeful performances earlier this year.
“I think everyone wants him to come back. If he did, it would be one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history,” Zacker said. “But I think the consensus is that chances are it won’t happen or it’s just going to be too tough.”