Tiger is not the intimidating golfer of old
As recently as 18 months ago, it was not only unreasonable to question any aspect of Tiger Woods's golf game, it was unwise. He has a memory like an elephant, and would very likely bury you with your words.
These days, the critiques are uttered with little fear of reprisal.
Ian Poulter, the colourful Englishman who has jousted with Woods before, this week opined that Tiger would not be a very good bet to finish in the top five at the Masters, as erratically as he's been hitting it.
Jack Nicklaus, whose record 18 major championships has been Tiger's career-long Holy Grail, wouldn't go that far. But the Golden Bear's benchmark -which only three years ago seemed in danger of being obliterated -looks a little safer today than it did when Woods limped off the 18th green at Torrey Pines in June, 2008 with a torn ACL, a double stress fracture ... and his 14th major.
Now if Woods, once considered a dead-solid lock to own the record, intends to get to the magic No. 19, he needs to start showing some signs that it's still possible.
"I assume that he'll get his focus back on what he's doing, and he will probably pass my record," Nicklaus said Tuesday. "But then the last part I always say about it is: he's still got to do it. He's still got to win five more, and that's more than a career for anybody else playing."
Anybody else but Tom Watson, anyway, who nearly won his ninth major two years ago at Turnberry. But you get the idea. He's 61, and probably all out of miracles among the youngsters on the PGA Tour.
"I said last year it was an important year, because he was playing all these courses he had won on before," said Nicklaus -meaning Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews ...
"Now we're into the next year, and this is a really important year for him. The longer it goes, the tougher it's going to be. Simple mathematics."
Tiger has stalled at 14 majors, age 35.
He had 11 when he was 30, just entering what is usually the prime of a golfer's career.
Woods, of course, remains outwardly confident - at least verbally.
Asked if Nicklaus's record means as much to him as it once did, or if events of the last 18 months have changed his thinking, Woods said: "No, I absolutely want to do it. That's the benchmark and gold standard in this sport: 18."
"Do you still believe you will?" he was asked.
"Mm-hmm," he said, noding, smiling.
But the bravado is based on ... what? Good memories? Faith in the ability of Augusta National to work its magic on his recently spotty short game?
The truth is, Woods is not favoured here -is even called a "sucker bet" by at least one Vegas oddsmaker -because he is in the midst of yet another radical swing change, one that includes his chipping and putting stroke, and hasn't played anything like a world-class game with any consistency, on a course that usually eats up anything less.
He's still long enough to dominate Augusta's par-fives, which is where green jackets are won, but it's all about getting the ball in the hole, getting up-and-down from his misses, making the putts.
Logically, Woods knows that's the case.
"The years that I've won here, I've putted well the entire week. You can't just putt well for 18 holes or even nine hole stretches. You have to keep it going, avoid 3 putts, and have perfect pace all week," he said Tuesday. "No matter how you play the golf course, no matter how well you play, you're going to have to make 6 and 8 footers for par. It's just a given here. And some of those years, I didn't make those putts. That's what has kept me out of the winner's circle."
He isn't second-guessing himelf, at least publicly, on the decision to change his swing again, this time with the help of Canadian teacher Sean Foley.
"Taking a step back, or sometimes even two steps back, there's nothing wrong with that if I'm going to make three, four, five steps forward and become better in the end. I'll sacrifice that for a bit, knowing that I'll become better," Woods said.
"If you look at my track record, that's exactly what's happened. I got to 14. Can't be that bad." The audience laughed.
"It just takes time. It took a long time with Butchand it took a long time with Hankand so far it's taken a long time with Sean. It's taken a long time to develop the patterns. I'm finally starting to shape the ball both ways and being able to fix it if I don't."
Nicklaus questions the wisdom of modern players' dependence on swing coaches, but he expects both Woods and defending champion Phil Mickelson to play well this week. Then again, he favours anyone who can move it off the tee, as he did when he was winning this thing six times.
"It's always going to be harder for the Luke Donalds or ... I don't know who else hits the ball the length Luke does," said Nicklaus.
"Mike Weir won here. I hought that was unbelievable, hat Mike Weir did. He hit 50 er cent of the greens. Historcally, it's taken 75 per cent of he greens for the winner. He it 50 per cent of the greens nd won. Had an unbelievable eek of a short game."
Weir and 2007 winner Zach Johnson were anomalies, though. The course rewards the long, high ball, and Woods and Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood ... all have that shot.
Woods may never be just a face in that crowd, but the simultaneous collapse of his private life and his golf game have caused a sea change in the way he is viewed.
If first reactions to his bawdy extra-marital escapades were amusement, then amazement, and eventually derision and disgust, his abject fall from a swaggering, smug, godlike figure on the golf course to a desperate, doubt-plagued also-ran have made him, somehow, more human, even sympathetic.
Well, not that Mickelson or Lee Westwood sympathize, particularly, but even Nicklaus, who managed to combine love of kids and family with the greatest career any golfer ever had, admits he is pulling for Woods.
"Yeah, I feel bad for him. I feel bad for his family. I feel bad that he got himself in that position," said The Bear. "But you know, I think that we're taught to have forgiveness, and I wish him well. I hope he gets his game back and I hope he comes back and plays well."
"Do I want to see him break my record? If he breaks my record, I want to be there to see it. Those are two different things."