Tiger Woods, once the man to beat in any tournament, heads to the PGA Championship on Thursday as just another contender trying to win the final major of the year. It is one thing for him to still be looking for a victory in a major, quite another for the world's No 1 player to have not won any tournament at all this late in the season.
Then again, Woods did not get started until the US Masters in April. And he still is trying to piece together a personal life in turmoil from his extramarital affairs that were uncovered nine months ago. "Just be patient, keep working, keep going," Woods said before the Bridgestone Invitational, his final chance to win before the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. But now his game, as well as his personal life, appears in tatters too.
Woods finished yesterday's third round 11 over par, his worst position after 54 holes on the US circuit since he turned professional in late 1996 and eclipsed his previous worst aggregate after three rounds - 10-over totals recorded at the 1996 and 1998 Tour Championship. The previously unflappable Woods is starting to feel the heat. "No, talk to the leaders," a grim-faced Woods told a PGA Tour official after being asked if he was prepared to speak to reporters after signing his card.
He did, however, manage to muster a few words to the official about his round which included two birdies, five bogeys and a double-bogey at the par-four eighth. "I drove it terrible, hit my irons terrible, didn't putt well and it added up to a lot," the 34-year-old said. His 75 yesterday sat alongside his 74 on the first day and 72 on the second. "I've been through periods like this before," he said the day before. "If you look at my career, I've never been one of those guys that just plays awful and then all of a sudden, just plays well. You'll start seeing trends."
There are plenty of trends in golf, some of them related to the state of his game. There is one trend that stands out in American golf this year, it is the preponderance of international players winning on the PGA Tour. It started with Rory McIlroy closing with a record 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship. That began a stretch of foreign-born players winning 11 of 15 events on the US tour. "When you have one player dominating and winning consistently, there's very few people who are gaining confidence. If anything, it's going to work in the opposite way," Padraig Harrington said. "Nobody is quite dominating at the moment. That leaves two things. One, players aren't scared. And two, there's more of them to win."
Two of those international players won majors for the first time - Graeme McDowell in the US Open and Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open. Even more alarming for the Americans is that none finished among the top three in consecutive majors, which had not happened in 98 years. The 92nd PGA Championship gets under way on Thursday and the 156-man field is getting more international by the year. There are 76 players from overseas, compared with only 47 international players 10 years ago.
The defending champion is YE Yang, who became the first Asian male to win a major last year at Hazeltine when he rallied from two shots behind to beat Woods. One other trend: five of the last six major champions had never won a grand slam event before, the exception being Mickelson at the US Masters. It is the longest such stretch since there were six first-time major winners from the 2002 PGA through to the 2004 US Open.
"Golf is very strong in depth at the moment," said Lee Westwood. "Players are better coached nowadays. They're not afraid to win and they get into position more regularly than maybe they used to. Obviously, Tiger has not won as many as you would have thought he would have won recently, so that creates room for other people to win majors." America no longer holds any fears for the Europeans. "We come over here and get more comfortable with the players and the golf courses," McDowell said. "I just think we have a lot of top players right now who are playing out here more often, and it's obviously pure mathematics."
Woods remains stuck on 14 career majors, four short of the record held by Jack Nicklaus. His last major - the 2008 US Open - seems so long ago. If he fails to win at Whistling Straits, it will be the third time in his career that 10 majors have elapsed without him winning one. Winning anything at the moment would satisfy Woods. * AP