Tiger Woods in 2012: What Now?

What does Tiger’s win at the Chevron World Challenge mean for the future?

Thrash TalkThere are two parts to me, the golf fan. The first part is the one that smirked when Zach Johnson’s putt was left the entire way on the last hole at Sherwood, the part of me that jumped out of my desk chair and pumped my fist when Tiger’s putt went in. That’s the part of me that live chatted 2011’s Masters, begging Tiger’s eagle put on the 15th at the Masters to go in. The part of me that watched the entire Monday playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open, watched his chip on 16th at the 2005 Masters roll and roll and roll… and then fall. That’s the part of me that hazily remembers the 1997 Masters. I call that part of me “Optimist.” Otherwise known as “Irrational.”

The other part, “Realist,” lives in a post-2009-Thanksgiving world. A world in which Tiger Woods destroyed himself. He’s not Ben Hogan and a bus didn’t nearly crush him late one night. He messed up. Post-2009 me, still a fan of Tiger’s on-course achievements, has felt stupid for two years for not moving on.

What am I supposed to do? Every time I think he’s done, he gives me the eighth hole at the Masters. Every time I think he’s back he gives me the PGA. Then he looks wholly average at the Frys.com, and event he could have dominated just two years ago. Now this. He wins an 18-man event, his own event, and I’m supposed to think he’s ready for 2012? He’s ready to challenge Nicklaus? He’s ready to tell Rory and Rickie “Eh, not yet guys?” I don’t think so.

Tiger Woods 2011 PGA Practice

I want him to come back. Optimist and Realist can agree on that, but Realist is the part of me that actually plays golf, the part of me who knows how big a role confidence plays in golf. That side of me knows it’s a long way back. Optimist tells me four majors is nothing when you’ve already won 14, while Realist tells me 99.99% of golfers would kill for a sniff of just one major, then reminds me that Tiger Woods is the .01% that wouldn’t.

Optimist saw Tiger use a smiley face on Twitter after his win, saw him post a YouTube video of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” saw Tiger change his picture to an actual photo of him, smiling, but Realist realizes there’s a reason that before his win I had a column about the impending end of the Tiger era queued up and ready to go. For every point, there’s a counterpoint.

Two years in, it seems that now, as much as ever, the world is ready for Tiger to be back. Golf fans, the media, the general population, we all needed to see him struggle for a bit. Life’s just not supposed to be that easy, and neither is golf. Karma, the Golf Gods, Tim Tebow, someone was making sure that the world didn’t explode, that there are repercussions, that you can’t just do anything you like and expect people to accept you for who you are. Phil got his time in the sun (under far-less-than-ideal situations, I’ll admit), Rory got to spend some time as The Next Tiger, and Luke Donald found out what it was like to become a top 10 machine, but two years is enough mourning.

Tiger Woods 2011 FRYS Saturday

I spent a lot of the final round of the Chevron texting with my dad, another avid golf fan. He’s probably the most rational person I’ve ever met. A 61 year-old, he didn’t bat an eye when the Red Sox traded Nomar, and later Manny, when I could barely accept the immortal Freddy Sanchez leaving town. He said goodbye to Drew Bledsoe as fast as you can say “Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.” Almost the polar opposite of the decidedly irrational Bill Simmons, sports aren’t emotional to him, he focuses on what’s ahead rather than what’s behind.

But even he’s been hung up on Tiger Woods. Ardently pro-Woods, my dad’s been following him since the early Sports Illustrated articles that called Tiger a “cocksure golf prodigy.” After two years of melancholy, the first text I got from him after Tiger’s putt on 18 was “Yes!!!” (Apparently when you give a 61-year-old an iPhone, what you get is three exclamation points.) Despite refusing to root against the Yankees (even thought it’s be awfully nice if C.C. mysteriously blows out a knee next month), he was steadfastly rooting for Zach Johnson’s putt to miss. When I explained to him that Johnson was actually in a better situation than McDowell was last year, he wouldn’t hear it. That putt was dropping.

Tiger Woods 2011 Australian Open Friday

No one has forgotten or forgiven Tiger Woods, but if time doesn’t heal all wounds, it certainly distracts us from them. Tiger visited the depths of 21st century media hell, and he’s lived to tell the tale (or, y’know, keep it to himself). He’s bottomed out. All of those made cut streaks, those stroke average numbers, those youngest-to records, they’re gone. If he wants to be the best player ever, he’s going to have to do it the Jack Nicklaus way, the Hank Aaron way, not the Sandy Koufax way.

So what’s next for Tiger? I think I’ve already established that I’m no Patrick Jane when it comes to predicting the future. Last year I expected two majors and a half-dozen other wins out of Tiger. Granted, we’ll never know what he could have done without those injuries, but I think it’s safe to say he simply wasn’t ready. Mentally, physically, and mechanically. But now? His swing path isn’t 10 degrees to the right. He’s not hitting 7 degrees down. Foley has taught him Trackman-speak, and D-plane. That might not help that much but if Tiger is the information-seeker that he’s always professed to be (for instance, see these two recents Twitter posts, from a Q&A), it can’t hurt.

Tiger Woods 2011 Australian Open Saturday

A year and a half into The Foley Experiment, he’s started to get confident in how the ball comes off the face, how it feels to make perfect contact again, and (most importantly) how to fix his swing when he’s struggling. Tiger hasn’t had his A-game at all over the last few years, but if he can again learn to make adjustments on the fly, he might not have to be on all the time.

In 2012’s majors, Tiger will face The Olympic Club, Royal Latham & St Annes Golf Club, and Kiawah Island Golf Resort, in addition to Augusta National. Tiger doesn’t have much of a track record at any of the first three courses. He has never played Kiawah in a pro event, he finished T18 at the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic, and T25 at the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Latham & St Annes. Basically, if Tiger is going to win one it’s got to be the Masters. Despite all of his swing changes and injuries, Tiger has missed the top ten at Augusta just three times since 1997, and not a single time since 2004. Because the other three are located on the water, if the wind kicks up Tiger could have some trouble.

Wind notwithstanding, it all comes down to how Tiger is playing and how his body holds up. If he keeps improving, who knows, he could put a dent in Jack’s record. If not, it’s another lost year, one Tiger can’t much afford. If he’s not done now, a majorless 2012 just might seal it.

Photo Credits: © Stuart Franklin, © Robert Laberge, © Mark Metcalfe, © Mark Metcalfe.

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