There was an interesting little moment Sunday during one of the dramatic golf days in recent months. It happened on the 18th green. By then, the Pebble Beach Pro-Am was ostensibly over. Phil Mickelson had played perhaps the most wonderful round I’ve ever seen him play. Sure, he has certainly played better rounds, more important rounds, more demanding rounds … but this was Mickelson in full flight, hitting every shot flush, hitting every approach so the ball danced around the hole, hitting every putt on a magnetic line. This, for him, seemed to be one of those charmed days that happen to the lucky and talented people, a day when everything goes right. That had to be fun.
Tiger Woods, his playing partner, did not have fun. Well, you know that already. Woods missed short putts. He hit poor shots. He shot three over par — Mickelson shot eight-under — and he looked looked utterly lost … this on a Sunday that so many had prepared for Tiger’s comeback coronation day.
But the point here is not exactly about how poorly Tiger Woods played, or what it means for his comeback or any of that. We don’ really know what it means. One thing I think we do too much in sports (in life too) is draw conclusions from things we know little to nothing about. Every time a baseball team loses 10-0 or whatever in a playoff game, we read hundreds of stories (some of us, present company included, even write them) wondering how that loss will AFFECT the losing team. Will they recover? Will they be able to put the loss out of their minds? What will be their mental health after such a disaster? And so on. We do this all the time — guess at people’s motivations, predict their reactions, assume their points of view — and it seems to me people are just more complicated than that. The baseball team that loses 10-0 wins the next game some of the time, loses it some of the time, but I doubt it has much to do with the 10-0 game.
Tiger could have a great year, he could have a lousy year, he could win a major or two, he could miss all four major cuts, I doubt any of it would have anything to do with Sunday’s disheartening round.
No, my thought has nothing to do with what Sunday’s round predicts. It has something to do with what it might have revealed.
Woods had hit a good approach shot to the 18th green and had a long putt for eagle. At that point, CBS’ Jim Nantz made the point that Woods needed a birdie to finish in the Top 10. Nantz made that point basically to show how far Woods had fallen — so many people had expected him to WIN this tournament when the day began, and when it ended he needed a birdie just to finish in the Top 10. Woods’ eagle putt wasn’t especially good — none of his putts Sunday seemed very good — but it wasn’t bad either, and he was left with a short little 2- or 3-foot putt for birdie and a Top 10 finish.
Then, after Mickelson finished up with his own birdie — trumpets, applause, praise — Woods stepped up over his putt for that Top 10 … and hit a sensationally bad putt.
No, really, this was a first ballot hall of fame bad putt. It was awful. I’m sure that it was a trickier putt that it seemed on TV — downhill, a lot of break, whatever — but honestly it looked like the sort of putt I would hit. Woods rammed the putt at what looked to be a half million miles an hour, it smacked into the lip of the hole, spun out and rolled five or six feet away. The putt, of course, led the announcers to say something like, “Well, it’s been that kind of day for Tiger Woods,” but I thought something else.
I thought: He … doesn’t … care.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean that Tiger doesn’t care about winning. He does. He cares about playing great golf again. He cares about getting his swing right. He cares about being No. 1 again. He cares about catching Nicklaus’ record for most majors. I have little doubt about any of that.
But, those are big things, overarching things. What I mean is: I don’t think Tiger Woods cares at all about finishing in the Top 10. I don’t think he cares about finishing his devastating Sunday round with a birdie. I don’t think he cares about the few thousand extra bucks he would have earned. I don’t think he cares about salvaging a 74 instead of a 75. Well, Tiger Woods has never really hidden this side of himself. He comes to win — he has told us that hundreds of times. If he can’t win, well, as Ricky Bobby said — there’s first place and there’s no place.
But I will still say that seeing how little he seemed to care about something small and seemingly insignificant — like a birdie putt on the last hole of a rotten day — surprised me a bit. And it yet again made me wonder about Tiger Woods’ comeback attempt. We all know he hasn’t won a real golf tournament in more than two years. We all know he’s now 36, which is closer to the end than the beginning no matter what anyone says — a short list of great golfers who never won a major after turning 36 includes Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els (so far). We all know Woods has faced a public scrutiny unlike anything any golfer has ever faced. This is a mountain climb.
When Woods was at his best, he wasn’t just the best golfer in the world, he was better in every way imaginable — he was the longest hitter, he was the best iron player, he was the best putter, he had the best short game, he had the most imagination. With all that going for him, he didn’t need to worry about making or missing putts that would put him ninth. He didn’t have to work his way up — the guy was Sportsman of the Year before he won his first major. And he won that first major by like 500 shots. He didn’t have to make those short birdie putts to finish in the Top 10 so he could cash that check.
So, he doesn’t really have that experience to draw back on. He has always been the best golfer in his class, going back to when he was 5 years old. But that’s not how it is now. Woods is still a great golfer, of course. But there are a lot of great golfers. When you watch Rory McIlroy or Jason Day or Dustin Johnson or a handful of others, you see golfers who can do just about everything Tiger Woods can do. They hit it by Tiger now. They seem steadier over putts than Tiger now. How is Tiger going to beat those young golfers on a consistent basis now? I would say he has to rely on his experience, his shot-making and the force of his will in the final round …
And that’s exactly my point: How forceful is his will if he’s smashing birdie putts five-feet by at the end of bad rounds in what looks to be frustration?
Tom Watson — in his futile and never-ending effort to teach me about golf — has told me that one thing you want to watch with a golfer is how often he or she haphazardly backhands a short putt into the hole. It’s a little thing, and maybe it’s only something interesting to a stickler like Watson. But he doesn’t think so. “I never once saw Jack Nicklaus do that,” he said. “Not once. He’s the only guy I can say that about. Even I did it a few times. But not Jack. He would always walk around and putt the ball into the hole. Always.”
Now, I don’t know if Nicklaus always did that — this sounds a bit too much like “Joe DiMaggio never threw to the wrong base” for my taste — but I’m sure Tom’s point is generally valid.* I’m sure Nicklaus almost never backhanded a putt. So what? Well, Watson admired that in Nicklaus. To him, that gets at why Nicklaus was great. He never took a shortcut. He never hit a shot half-heartedly — not even a one-inch putt. To Watson — and I’ll admit, it sounds a bit fogeyish, but Watson on golf should be heard — backhanding the ball in the hole is sloppy, stupid and disrespectful to your own golf game. “If you are shooting 80,” Watson says, “You want to shoot 79. If you are shooting 79, you want to shoot 78.” To him, that’s what golf is all about — one shot better, always, and especially on your worst days. That, he says, is why Nicklaus was so great for so long. That’s why he aged so magnificently. He never gave away a thing to carelessness or disinterest.
*I saw this is Nicklaus — I’ve told this story before about a senior tournament in Kansas City which was hammered with near-biblical thunderstorms. Nicklaus wasn’t in contention, he had only come to play as a favor to Watson, and when the final round of the tournament was pushed back to Monday he had a dozen places he was supposed to be. But Nicklaus stayed. He would end up 64th. He earned a whopping $2,145. But on the final hole, he closely studied his putt so that he could shoot a 73 rather than a 74. He was 65 years old at the time.
Woods probably backhanded four or five little putts into the hole on Sunday. Does that matter? He made them all. He might always make them all. But he didn’t make that last birdie putt — didn’t come close to making it. There have been any number of rounds the last couple of years when Woods — realizing he couldn’t win — seemed to check out. When Tiger Woods was becoming the best golfer in the world, he could throw back his bad days — he had so few of them. But that’s one of the hard parts of getting older. There are more bad days. You might want to try to salvage as many as you can.