Many pundits think this is the end for Tiger Woods. They say that his second round 82 and missed cut at the Phoenix Open are signs of a new, broken Woods. Or they say the 39-year-old’s withdrawal at the Farmers Insurance Open after just 11 holes means he will never stay healthy again. Or they say that, fundamentally, the golfer they see is unrecognizable compared with the 14-time major champion.
They argue a competitive Woods just isn’t a possibility, and that his time has come and gone.
“His golf game is in shambles,” analyst and former pro-golfer Paul Azinger told ESPN. “It’s sad to see that. But what we get to see is the most confident golfer of all-time try to claw his way back.”
There are arguments to be made—in fact, a lot of arguments—to suggest that we haven’t seen the last of Woods. Below are arguments to why Woods might be done and why they might be misguided.
1. Woods is too old and broken down.
Consider the argument that Woods is old, out-matched and the field has caught up to the once-dominant golfer. But experts agree that Woods’ distance is not a problem. His average drive in 2015 is a whopping 323 yards, according to PGA Tour stats. New instructor Chris Como, according to many reports, has helped Woods find a swing that is a bit more comfortable and less stressful on his hampered back. Even with a bad back, it hasn't hurt his ability to drive the ball.
While Woods had to pull out from the Farmer’s Insurance Open due to back pain, it came after long delays and awkward periods of warming up and cooling down.
Why would Woods risk further injury or try to power through pain? Clearly, this version of Woods is more cautious—he took two months off to recover—but significant time to rehab is probably a smart long-term strategy. Why jeopardize his health for a tournament that is not a major? Majors are what really matter to Woods. Back pain could even potentially cost Woods a trip to the Masters, a severe blow to his career goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' major championship record. One missed major, however, isn't the end of the world if it means a full recovery to compete for majors in his 40s. At age 39, he has to choose his battles carefully.
The most important point is that Woods' new swing gives him the physical ability to hit shots with less limitations than before.
Nicklaus famously won the Masters in 1986, when he was 46 years old. The Golden Bear also won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at age 40. There is no legitimate reason to believe that Woods cannot achieve similar results in the near future. His powerful drive is still present. So is his will to win.
2. Woods can’t figure out simple parts of his golf game
The biggest problem for Woods, in fact, has been just about everything besides driving.
"He's not struggling,'' Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said to ESPN. "He's incapable of hitting those shots right now. He's incapable of doing the most pedestrian requirements at the highest level.''
Are these issues correctable? Probably. It's understandable for Woods to struggle with other shots besides driving. Woods used to win by dominating Par 5’s with long drives and clutch putting. The long drives are now back. If Woods can keep up with the long-hitters, that old formula is in play. His short game—chipping and pitching especially—has been shocking at times. See below:
(Vines via Brendan Porath)
But Woods at his peak was perhaps the best golfer of all-time and is coming off an extended layoff. His accuracy and ability to hit the ball cleanly is bound to suffer. Practice golf and tournament golf are entirely different. Woods is also using a new swing and calibrating the new motions to old shots. Of course he will be less accurate and reliable. Chips and pitches (Woods' biggest Achilles heel in 2015) especially require feel, touch and practice. Continued practice and plenty of competition are basic remedies.
Woods game is indeed struggling. Simple tasks are often amplified after time away from the game. Woods was once a legendary maestro of scrambling who could pitch and chip his way to fixing bad shots. ESPN's Bob Harig compared Woods’ scrambling with that of Seve Ballesteros, widely considered the best scrambler of all time. Even if Woods' head never completely clears of doubt, he can recover at least a semblance of that legendary ability. Confidence and a few good shots can do wonders for a golfer. Repetition allows your head to clear because the shot is muscle memory, like riding a bike. Getting back to competition reacquaints an athlete with the feeling of playing in tournament golf. This version of Woods just needs to figure out the new Como-taught swing and how to apply it on important weekends. It may not be long before Woods goes back to hitting a wedge with top-class precision.
3. Woods doesn’t "look the same."
This argument is a bit harder to nail down since it's so vague, but some suggest they cannot recognize Woods as the golf superstar who has won 79 PGA tour events. Those same detractors may have a short memory, considering it was only in 2013 that Woods was named PGA Player of the Year.
Such short-sighted criticism is nothing new to Woods. Many pundits had written him off as "finished" after his personal failings were made public in late 2009. While he failed to win a major since, and he was forced to take a leave of absence, Woods continued to tour events.
“There were a lot of people who said I could never win again, and two years later, I’ve got eight wins on Tour,” Woods said at the time. “It just makes it all the more rewarding.”
There is just one, albeit injury-plagued, season removing Wood from his 2013 form. Woods is struggling, but most elite golfers have had stretches of poor form.
4. Woods doesn’t have the desire or strength to get his game back.
"I think it would be fair to question Tiger's desire at this point," said Hank Haney, Woods' former swing coach to ESPN. "And his energy level to climb the mountain. And let's face it, it's not a hill, it's a mountain now.”
Haney was quick to point out, however, that Woods could still do it.
Questioning Woods' desire may be a foolish exercise. There are few golfers, if any, since Nicklaus who have shown the same type of competitive spirit as Woods.
Woods is famous for having a legendary work ethic. As a burgeoning star before winning his first major in 1997, he often spent early mornings and late nights pinging golf balls into the dark sky of a driving range. There have been reports of those sessions returning. If Woods wants to climb a mountain, and by all accounts his goal is Nicklaus’ 18 majors, he will do the work to climb the mountain.
Woods didn’t win 14 majors by accident. We may never see Woods return to his top form, because at his best he seemed almost impossibly dominant. He won seven majors in six years and his total of 14 in just 11 years is jaw dropping. But Woods' biggest rival, 44-year-old Phil Mickelson, has won just five majors in his entire career and is coming off a disappointing 2014 season. Others like Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, and Adam Scott still have some ways to go until they reach even a glimmer of what Woods accomplished in a short period of time.
Now Woods’ doubters have become more visible and vocal. Woods’ competition has always been himself, history, and the imagined doubters in his head. He is capable of overcoming all of them.