By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
The notion seems preposterous now.
But a year ago, there were plenty of savvy golf observers who believed that, by now, Tiger Woods would be taking dead aim at Jack Nicklaus’ record for most pro major championships when Woods plays in this week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Woods entered 2010 trailing Nicklaus by four majors (18 to 14), but with the first three championships being held at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews – places where Woods has won half of his major titles, winning last time at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews by a combined 23 shots – there was the prospect Woods would sweep all three and arrive at Whistling Straits looking to tie Nicklaus’ acclaimed record. Not to mention, staring down the calendar-year Grand Slam.
But that was before Woods’ world was turned upside down by a Thanksgiving night car accident and subsequent reports of marital infidelities.
And when Woods arrived Sunday afternoon at Whistling Straits after a desultory performance at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, he was looking at even more question marks.
Is he going to be shut out in the majors for the second consecutive year – something that happened only twice since he turned professional in 2006?
Is he going to fail to win a PGA TOUR event in a calendar year for the first time? He has never gone into August without a win as a member of the PGA TOUR, and things seem to be going from bad to worse. At the Bridgestone Invitational, an event he had won seven of his 10 previous tries and never finished worse than fourth, Woods shot his highest score as a professional (298) and his highest score in relation to par (18 over) while beating just one player in the 80-man field.
Woods sometimes looked like he didn’t want to be on the golf course, several times playing chips on the weekend without his usual pre-shot routine. “Shooting 18 over par is not fun,” Woods said Sunday. “I don't see how it can be fun shooting 18 over, especially since my handicap is supposed to be zero.”
If Woods can’t even be competitive at an event he used to dominate, how is he going to fare at the much-more-exacting Whistling Straits?
But the biggest question of all is: When will his life return to normal after he was forced to take a three-month sabbatical earlier this year to deal with his personal issues? History has shown in golf that, until an athlete’s personal life is settled, his professional life is going to have more ups and downs than the stock market.
“He’s obviously struggling. He’s not hitting it very well. He’s just not the regular Tiger Woods we’ve seen,” said Anthony Kim, Woods’ playing partner Sunday at Firestone. “He obviously has a lot of stuff going on, and that’s obviously more important than golf. Golf is an easy thing to do once your personal life is straightened out and I’m sure that will happen at some point.”
Woods was fourth in a pair of majors (Masters and U.S. Open) but, amazingly, those were his only top-10 finishes in his eight starts. This, from a guy who finished in the top 10 in nearly 70 percent of his PGA TOUR starts as a professional and won at a 30-percent clip until this season.
It’s hard to put much credence into the statistics that define Woods’ game this year because he has played so little, and on some of the toughest courses, but there are some troubling numbers. Entering the Bridgestone Invitational, he ranked 142nd in driving accuracy (60.6 percent), 111th in greens in regulation (65.6 percent) and 134th in putts per round (29.6).
His problems, in other words, run throughout his bag.
Can Woods salvage his season this week at Whistling Straits, where he tied for 24th at the 2004 PGA Championship? Recent form indicates no, but it’s never been wise to underestimate Woods’ abilities the last 14 years on the PGA TOUR.
“If you look at my career, I’ve never been one of those guys that just plays awful and then all of a sudden just plays well,” Woods said last week at Firestone. “You’ll start seeing trends.”
Woods has gone through mini-droughts before – in 1998 and 2003, for instance – but those were self-caused because he decided to change his swing to make it more consistent. Some will say this year’s problems also were self-inflicted – and they have certainly done more damage to his game because Woods can’t get away from the scrutiny on or off the course.
“It has been a long year,” Woods said. “A long 10 months.”
And it’s only going to get longer if he has to wait eight more months for his next opportunity to win a major.
If Woods fails to win this week’s PGA Championship, it will mark the third time in his career that he has gone 10 majors without a win. Usually, that’s not a horrible thing.
The first time, after he failed to win from the 1997 U.S. Open to the 1999 British Open, he responded by winning five of the next six majors. The second time, which ran from the 2002 British Open to the 2004 PGA Championship, he won two of the next three and four of the next eight.
So while Nicklaus is correct when he says it will be much more difficult for Woods to pass him if he was unable to win at least one major among his favorite sites this year, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
It just won’t happen this year.
Woods knows he wasted a golden opportunity to make up a lot of ground on the Golden Bear this year. But he hasn’t given up on notching No. 15 this week.
Failing to win at favorite courses such as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews this year has no doubt slowed Woods’ chase of the most revered record in golf. But Woods knows the percentages aren’t all against him.
“The good news,” he says, “is I’ve won half of them not on these venues, too.”