Tiger Woods collected so many major championships over his first half-dozen full seasons as a professional, the message was bound to become distorted at some point.
This time, it was all about the volume.
During an otherwise forgettable pro-am round at the PGA Tour event in San Diego, an announcer listed his resume highlights over the public-address system – including seven major championship wins – as Woods’s group approached the final green.
Typically blase during most pro-ams, Woods’s ears pricked up as he began shaking his head animatedly, a smirk on his face. The accurate statistic: he already had amassed eight major titles in his short professional tenure.
Woods, whose relationship with the public would change appreciably over time, made light of the accounting error as he exited the 18th green.
He was asked: “What happened to your other major?”
“Good question,” Woods said, laughing.
All but forgotten, the episode occurred 11 years ago and now feels like a foreshadowing of sorts. There have not been many wisecracks about his performances at the majors lately.
Woods last won a major title six years ago, when he hobbled off that same Torrey Pines course as the 2008 US Open champion, and enters this week’s British Open with his game and health again under scrutiny and only lightly regarded as a contender.
This time, the public proclamations of analysts, pundits and former associates have been much harder on the ears and cannot be dismissed as mere statistical errors.
Woods, 38, has not finished in the top 20 this year and has played two competitive rounds since having minor back surgery four months ago. Plenty of rusty cutlery has been used to carve him up more recently.
Nick Faldo questioned his level of preparation, Paul Azinger said Woods’s myriad swing changes have only made him worse and Curtis Strange suggested that most players would not have bothered making the trip across the Atlantic under similar circumstances.
Stuck on 14 major title victories, Woods missed the first two majors of 2014 because of the back issue, making his goal of besting Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors feel as distant and dissonant as the 2003 anecdote in San Diego.
“I think Tiger is always going to be compared to Jack and there’s a big difference in where these two players are at this age, or were, at the age of 38,” Azinger said.
Well, yes and no. Woods and Nicklaus each amassed 14 majors by age 38, although Nicklaus won the British Open that year, and subsequently added three more.
In short, Woods’s record-shattering start at the majors has ground to a halt and, unless he wins this week at Royal Liverpool, he will have fallen behind on the career curve.
As ever, Woods-watching will be a huge part of the weekly proceedings. In fact, the American broadcaster ESPN will use its online channel, ESPN 3, exclusively to carry every Woods itch, twitch and expectoration. However long he sticks around.
Given the competitive decline from the lay-off, making the weekend might seem a reasonable goal, although Woods has a more lofty target in mind.
“First,” he said.
Hubris has become a Woods hallmark, but he won the British Open the last time it was played at Liverpool, in 2006, when he was at the apex of his popularity.
The victory came a few weeks after the death of his father and, on making the final putt, Woods hugged his caddie and wife, and wept openly to show a vulnerability that did far more for his public persona than the win.
The caddie and wife are long gone and so is much of the goodwill he engendered among the fans.
The degree to which he can recapture his aura has become the game’s principle obsession.
“I’ve been in circumstances like this before,” said Woods, who finished fourth at the Masters in 2010 after a lengthy lay-off resulting from his marital scandal. “I’ve proven I can do it.”
Yet the calendar eventually conspires against every player. Tom Watson never won a major after turning 33, Seve Ballesteros collected his last at 31 and Arnold Palmer was 34 when the pipeline dried up. Woods, whose medical file is already thick, turns 40 next year.
Since the modern four-major-titles grand slam was formally embraced in 1960, only 20 of the 218 tournaments have been captured by players in their 40s.
“Is it foolish for people to write him off? I would say so,” Rory McIlroy said. “If he’s playing and he’s competing, he’s got as good a chance as any.
“I wouldn’t write him off completely. I still think he can do things that we have never seen from any other golfer.”
While Woods has been battling injury and periodic ineffectiveness over the past six years, the road to major glory has only become steeper.
“I think it gets harder every year to win a major,” Woods said. “The field is getting deeper. Guys coming out here are stronger and more athletic.”
As for Woods, not so much.
“In Tiger’s quest to get better, I think he’s actually gotten a little bit worse,” Azinger said.
In late June, Woods missed the cut by four shots in his only start since the March back surgery, then went on a family vacation.
“Tiger has played two rounds and thinks he’s ready,” said Faldo, a six-time major winner and television analyst. “So we shall see.”
The Hoylake rough is higher than the level of optimism.
“I don’t think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leader board come the weekend,” said ESPN’s Strange, a two-time major winner.
Then again, like the blather of the public-address announcer 11 years ago in San Diego, this is mostly amusing background noise to Woods.
It could be about as accurate, too.
Watson, the reigning US Ryder Cup captain, all but slammed a palm on the table when discussing the former No 1’s chances this week.
He said: “Why can’t you understand that Tiger might very well win this tournament?”
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