By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- When Tiger Woods was asked before the start of the 93rd PGA Championship what he consider a successful return to major championship play, he smiled and said, “A ‘W.’” It can only be assumed the W he had in mind didn’t stand for “worst,” but that’s exactly what Woods put up: his worst opening round in major championship history, a seven-over-par 77.
Here’s all you need to know: the old Tiger Woods won majors, not because he made a lot of birdies, but because he made lots and lots of pars on the toughest holes. Where the rest of the field might play the hardest holes in any major a couple of shots over par, Woods would play them even or under par for the week.
The new Tiger played the toughest four holes at Atlanta Athletic Club in 5 over par. When he reached the 15th tee, his sixth hole of the day, he was 3 under par and a shot out of the lead. From there he promptly went double bogey, bogey, par, and double bogey to turn at 2 over.
It got steadily worse. Woods had three bogeys and another double bogey on his second nine, and never looked comfortable with any aspect of his game. His primary miss was a push-cut, even when he was trying to lay up with a fairway wood or iron.
But the most disturbing aspect of Tiger’s performance was his analysis of it.
“I was having mechanical thoughts and got to 3 under,” he said, leaving those who heard him scratching their heads. “I felt as though I was feeling it and thought I could let it go, and it screwed up my round.”
When pressed on exactly what it was about “letting go” that led the four-time PGA champion to play his final 13 holes 10 over, he said, “My shots don’t shape like they used to. I don’t shape the ball as much. I went ahead and, as I said, just played by feel and I just hit it, aimed too far right and it didn’t move. And a lot of fades out there did the same thing. I aimed left for a fade and it doesn’t move; it moves about a yard or two and I’m used to having it cut a lot more than that. And my draw used to move a lot than that as well.”
There is a sense of the surreal when he speaks now. It’s like seeing an obviously overweight Muhammad Ali talk about how ready he was for Larry Holmes, or a post-Bulls Michael Jordan talk about how he planned to take the Washington Wizards to a title.
“The frustrating thing is that I thought I was over it, and I could see the shot, and feel it,” he said. “I’m not at that point yet. I was fighting it, and I couldn’t get it back, which is frustrating. It’s a major championship. It’s time to score; time to play.”
Anyone who saw him knows that he isn’t close. His tee shot with a 4-iron on the par-3 15th never left the water and wouldn’t have reached the green if it had been straight. On 16, his second shot from the bunker, a difficult shot that the Tiger of Old would have flown right at the flag, squirreled out short and left and into the gallery.
Then on 18, he hit a low, heeled cut with a 3-wood, followed by a chunked lay-up and a mid-iron that pull-hooked 40 yards left of his target. A member of the gallery said, “He could take an X here.” He took a 6, but it looked much uglier than that, as did the rest of his round.
“I’ve been in this process before,” Woods said, attempting to find some positives from the day. “I’ve been through it with Butch; I went through it with Hank, and I’ve been through it with Sean. I just thought, this is a major and you peak for these events. I did not and it cost me.”
The first step in getting better is admitting that you have a problem. For Tiger, the trouble is no longer the knee or the off-course issues; the problem is his golf swing. And until he comes to terms with that, he is a lot closer to missing the cut than winning another major.