A couple of weeks ago, hoping to catch a glimpse of “the old Tiger” Woods, fans descended on Bay Hill, the famous golf course in Orlando, Fla., for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Whenever Woods set up on the practice green or the driving range, it seemed everyone from preschoolers to guys who looked like they could have been around in the 1920s when Bobby Jones was the golfer to beat stood wide-eyed and still. Even when he was 10 strokes off the lead going into the final round, thousands of fans, many in their Sunday best—a red golf shirt, Tiger’s trademark—lined the edges of the fairways, eight rows deep in some spots. They all seemed to be clinging to the prospect that here, at a tournament Woods had won six times, he might finally put an end to his 16-month drought.
There were certainly flashes of greatness—a miraculous iron shot over trees from deep in the rough on the ninth hole; a 55-foot birdie putt on 18—but those looking for vintage Tiger came away disappointed. Instead, they saw the same inconsistent golfer who hasn’t taken home a title since the trashing of his Cadillac Escalade in November 2009. The fender bender that would lead to the shattering of Woods’s squeaky clean image, and the stranger-than-fiction scandal that included everything from porn stars to a Perkins waitress, and six weeks in sex rehab. Woods posted a never-in-contention -1 at Bay Hill, finishing in a tie for 24th. And his final tune-up for this week’s Master’s only fuelled the critics, who question if the 35-year-old, who has slipped to No. 7 in the world, will ever dominate golf again.
Rory McIlroy, currently ranked ninth, is the only pro brave enough to put on paper what many on tour are probably thinking. In a guest column for Sports Illustrated, he suggested that Woods has lost his fear factor: “I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did?.?.?.?He’s playing like an ordinary golfer.” McIlroy took some heat from fellow pros, but the 21-year-old Irishman may have a point. Woods’s 2011 statistics rank him 57th in greens in regulation, 67th in driving distance, 107th in putting and 191th in driving accuracy. Now, he’s just one of the guys on tour.
The big problem for Woods is his swing, which is currently undergoing a total overhaul—the fourth such retooling in his career—under the watchful eye of Burlington, Ont.-born Sean Foley. (Ironically, Woods just released Tiger Woods: My Swing, a $9.99 iPhone App for those who want to play like him.) When Maclean’s caught up with Foley on the driving range at Bay Hill, he scoffed at the notion of there being an old Tiger and a new Tiger—”He’s Tiger”—and described the last 16 months as a “hiccup” in a long career. “Jack Nicklaus had a stretch of 17 months, Wayne Gretzky played poorly for a long time, so did Michael Jordan,” he says. “How can you be bulletproof for so long when you’re a human being? And then life gets in the way.” In Woods’s case, a big part of “life” is the public spectacle of his $110-million divorce from Elin Nordegren.
So what specifically are Foley and his prized pupil working on? “The whole geometry and how the body is rotating and the path and the arc that the club is on,” says the 36-year-old coach. “Basically, I’m trying to get the alignments at impact better than they were. The club is so stuck behind him we need to get it back in front of the body. It’s a different pattern for him, so it takes time.”
Foley, Woods’s coach since last August, isn’t setting any time frame, but describes Woods’s recent practice sessions as “fantastic.” Increasingly, he says, “I see more smiles and I see the swagger coming back.” While Foley describes the changes to his technique as “basically neuroscience,” Woods breaks down what needs to be done in simpler terms: “More reps, more competitive rounds, and making a few putts at the right time and next thing you know, I’ll be right there.”
But will he ever strike fear in the hearts of opponents again? “Eventually,” says Foley, “his game will do the same thing to people that it has in the past.” Other pros tend to agree. When asked by Maclean’s if Woods has any chance of returning to his old form, Rocco Mediate, a 25-year PGA veteran, was emphatic. “He’ll be back,” says Mediate, after wrapping up his final round at Bay Hill. “If he finds his golf swing again, he’ll be just as dominant as he was before, absolutely.”
But even if Woods perfects the swing, improves his putting, and somehow finds a way to leave all the personal baggage in the locker room, a return to the top isn’t guaranteed. Standing next to him, it’s impossible to ignore he has the body, especially the shoulders, of a power-hitting third baseman. But Woods has suffered his share of injuries—his left knee has gone under the knife four times—and no matter how fit, the more miles an athlete puts on his body, the harder it is to bounce back. “Your body doesn’t recover at 35 like it did at 18,” says Sergio Garcia, a 12-year veteran. “It’s just the way it is.”
In some ways, Woods’s past success is also going to impede his return to dominance. Back when he was winning events by double digits, he was the freak of nature touring with guys who didn’t make it to the gym every day, or at all. Today, 14 years since the 21-year-old blew everyone away by a record 12 strokes to win his first green jacket at Augusta, Woods is frequently being outgunned by younger stars, guys who played other sports in college before focusing on golf, and who are as devoted to the weights as he is. In the first two rounds at Bay Hill, for instance, Woods was matched up with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland, a pair of 26-year-old long-ballers. Woods joked before the tournament began that he’d be the “Corey Pavin” of the group, a reference to the skinny American whose 251-yard average drive currently ranks him 194th in the PGA. Sure enough, Woods was outdriven consistently by both Johnson and Woodland by 30 yards.
But keeping up with the heavy hitters may not be the greatest obstacle. “It’s a lot easier to lose your intensity,” says Stewart Cink, the 38-year-old six-time PGA tour winner. “If you’re in 40th place on Saturday, when you’re younger out here, it’s easy to stay really intense and grind it away. But the older you get, it’s a little harder unless you’re right up near the top. I think Tiger may say the same thing.”
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