So here was my Twitter Tiger Woods question: "If his name wasn't Tiger Woods, would anyone be saying anything good about his current game?"
The problem with Twitter, of course, is that it's hard to say what you're trying to say in so few characters. Poorly phrased questions like that are BEGGING to be misunderstood. From the responses, I could tell that people THOUGHT I was asking one of the following questions:
-- Why are people still talking about Tiger?
-- With the way Tiger Woods is playing, why does anyone think he can be good again?
-- Why is Tiger Woods treated differently from everyone else?
-- Why do people still make golf all about Tiger?
-- Aren't you sick of Tiger Woods?
And so on. But I didn't mean any of that. I know exactly why people are still talking about Tiger … heck, he's the player who interests me most too. I know exactly why some people think Tiger can be good again … heck, the guy played golf better than anyone who ever lived. I know why Tiger is treated differently, I know why he's still the biggest star in the game, and I know why people keep talking about him. I know all of that.
No, my question was as literal as I could make it: If his name wasn't Tiger Woods, would anyone be saying anything good about his game? I watched Firestone last week, and I listened as analyst after analysts broke down Tiger's game. They seemed to like his decision to go to soft shoes. They seemed to generally like the changes he made with his swing. The showed that swing in slow motion dozens and dozens of times, and they liked his balance, his tempo, all that jazz. They were mostly positive about the way he improved his distance control as the week went on. Yes, there were a few negative comments about his driving and his putting, but the experts intimated that these were fixable things and they suggested more than once that many of the troubles he had were simply a result of the natural rust of missing a few weeks because of the bad knee.
I walked away from all that thinking: Hmm, the experts generally seem to think Tiger Woods has a chance to be a great player again. Our own PGA Tour Confidential -- a must read for golf fans every week -- seemed to suggest that Tiger probably wasn't going to win, but he certainly make the cut, he might contend …
And then he went out on Thursday and shot a tidy seven-over par on a relatively good scoring day, butchering hole after hole and tying with John Daly heading into Friday's action.
And I get back to the question: Would anyone be saying anything good about his game if he wasn't Tiger Woods? Because to me: That swing doesn't look like anything special at all anymore. He can't hit a fairway with his driver. His amazing talent for recovery was on display last week, but just as often he butchered those recovery shots. His iron play was reasonably good last week, but he's not exactly knocking down flag sticks. His putting is a real problem, and I don't know that there are many 36-year-olds -- the age Tiger will be at his next major championship -- who lose their putting touch and then get it back.
Right now he looks to me for all the world like a perfectly fine professional golfer. But nothing more.
Thing is: I don't claim to know the ins and outs of golf. I can't break down swings. I can't tell you how close someone like Tiger is to a breakthrough. I rely on the experts -- on Johnny Miller, on Nick Faldo, on Curtis Strange, on Gary McCord, on David Feherty, on Ian Baker Finch, on Peter Oosterhuis and the rest -- to tell me what's true about Tiger and what isn't true. Is he getting closer? Is his new swing good enough to win major championships again? How good does his driver have to be for him to be a star again? Does his putting stroke have the tiniest hiccup in it and can he overcome that at his age? What can he do with an off-season of intense work? Can he recreate himself? And at its most basic level: Can Tiger Woods be a great golfer again in his late 30s after facing a drought, a series of scandals and an injured knee?
I think those experts are trying to answer those questions, but there are two problems:
1. Tiger isn't forthcoming enough to give us a clear picture of his status. He really is the Black Knight of golf -- if his left leg was amputated, he would tell us it was only a flesh wound and that he felt great. He certainly won't let us into his mental state, and I don't blame him one bit for that. Still, it's hard to offer a focused picture of Tiger Woods because he's a moving target.
2. I think his amazing golf history colors everything. How can you observe Tiger Woods without thinking about Pebble Beach … about the chip in at Augusta … about St. Andrews … about winning the U.S. Open on one leg … about that steel focus … about how he changed the way so many people around the world thought about golf? How can you not watch him without thinking about the tabloids, and the swing changes, and the way he keeps talking stubbornly about how he only shows up to win golf tournaments? It's all intertwined. You know how in college recruiting, a player who is recruited by Alabama football or North Carolina basketball will quite suddenly jump up in the national rankings. Hey, if Alabama or North Carolina wants him, he MUST be good. And so, every time Tiger Woods does anything with his swing, people will say it's a good thing, just because, hey, he's TIGER WOODS and so it MUST be a good thing.
Back to the question: If a 35-year-old man named Leopard Forest showed up on tour, and he had a history of knee problems, and his swing looked exactly like Tiger's does now and he was spraying his drives like Tiger, and he was missing short putts like Tiger -- but he was also hitting a few amazing shots like Tiger, and he finished fourth at Augusta two years in a row -- what would people be saying about him? I don't ask that ironically: I honestly wonder. So much surrounding Tiger Woods is smoke and mirrors and mirage. It's just so hard to get to the heart of the story.
Last Sunday, I watched Tiger Woods do some lousy things I had never seen him do before. He tried ridiculous shots that failed. He putted half-heartedly. He was in trouble after virtually every drive. He seemed like he would rather be just about anywhere else in the world.
And then, suddenly, he made a couple of birdies in a row, and there was a bounce in his step, and focus seemed to return to his glare, and he was locked in a again. The experts seemed to take that as a good sign. Tiger Woods himself seemed to take that as a good sign. A few days later, he played like a very good club pro. Apparently it wasn't a good sign.