Sports Nut

Tiger, Burning Dim

Tiger Woods is trophyless after the first seven weeks of the 2001 PGA Tour. But heading into this weekend’s Nissan Open, most people think golf’s Chosen One is simply warming up. After all, Tiger captured nine tournaments last year, including three majors. He thoroughly dominated the best golfers on the planet and established himself as the heir to Michael Jordan as sport’s biggest star. Over the past two seasons, Tiger has won 17 times. Now everyone expects him to do it again.

Seemingly lost in the glare of Tiger’s blinding celebrity is the possibility that his recent dominance is an anomaly, not an indicator of things to come. Heresy, you say? Check out these precedents:

  • Byron Nelson won 19 tournaments in 1945, including an astounding 11 in a row, as part of the most dominating season in golf history. Nelson was a fabulous player throughout his career, but those victories from 1945 constitute more than a third of his career total. He never came close to that level of dominance again.

  • Johnny Miller won 12 times in 1974-75, a feat even more remarkable when you consider that Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were both in their primes at the time. But Miller won sparingly after that, and the victories he piled up in that two-year span are half of his career total.

  • More recently, Nick Price, who previously had won five times in 10 years on the tour, claimed nine wins during 1993 and 1994. He has won twice since then.    

Granted, each of those players, especially Nelson, were fine players by any measure before and after their streaks. But it is also true that they were not able to extrapolate their streaks over the course of their career. Indeed, how could they?

But that is precisely what Tiger Woods is expected to do. Most observers, including the Golden Bear himself, expect El Tigre to surpass the standard for excellence over a career set by Nicklaus—70 PGA Tour wins, 19 majors.       

What’s to stop him? Well, for one, the other PGA players could get their heads on straight. A critical element of Tiger’s game is his gamesmanship. When he arrived on tour, he set about convincing the other players that they could not beat him. He’d shoot 66 under brutal conditions and then look out over 50 cameras and announce, “I didn’t have my A game.” That caused the Matt Gogels of the world to swallow pretty hard back in the clubhouse while celebrating a 68 over a couple of Amstel Lights.

It was Gogel who folded like a cheap pair of plaid slacks and allowed Tiger to beat him by two after leading by seven strokes with seven holes to play at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. True, Tiger played brilliantly, finishing eagle-birdie-par-birdie, but Gogel’s back-nine 40 helped too.

Want more evidence that Tiger put some voodoo on his competition? At one point, he won 15 consecutive tournaments after he was leading or tied going into Sunday. That’s clearly impressive play, but it also indicates the competition simply laid down.

Thus far in 2001, it appears the other top players on tour spent their off-season polishing their psyches as much as their short games. In each of the four tournaments Tiger has played, he was lurking on Sunday, but veteran players like Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Davis Love III pulled away for the victories. It may be that at least some of the players finally believe they can compete with Tiger—at least when they have their A games and Tiger is saddled with a B-plus.

Tiger is, of course, wonderfully talented and driven—a winning combination in an athlete. However, golf is a famously difficult game with a minuscule margin for error. Tiger was in a groove for a long time. It’s no given that he’s still in that groove or that he’ll ever be able to find it again. Don’t get me wrong—I’d rather watch Tiger shoot 72 than watch Mickelson and Love shoot 64s any day. But I won’t be surprised if I have that choice more often in the future.