The Last Time
Finally, a moment of truth.
Less than an hour before he’ll tee off in the final round of the 2010 Masters, Tiger Woods walks onto the far corner of the Augusta National’s vast practice range.
The other players and caddies sneak looks. A cheer rises from the packed grandstands, and the rowdier people squeezed together behind the green gallery ropes yell encouragement from short range. “Go, Tiger! You’re the man!” He might be disgraced, he might be a punch line, but he’s still iconic.
As he puts on his glove, the force of the collective gaze that always makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m walking with Tiger at a major championship is more penetrating. He’s become more than just the greatest player alive. He’s the human being who’s fallen farther faster than anyone else in history. The haters, the sympathizers, the commentators—everyone—want to see what it’s done to him.
So do I. Yes, he’s been different since returning from an addiction-treatment facility six weeks ago—more subdued, possibly shell-shocked—but I’ve been waiting to judge whether he’s changed as a golfer. Tiger has always been able to go to a special place mentally in the majors, and I’m eager to find out if he still can. Will he still be Tiger Woods? Passing golf’s excruciating Sunday tests has always been what he does best. But this one feels most like a reckoning.
Tiger is in third place, four strokes behind Lee Westwood and three behind Phil Mickelson. Without saying so—he’s said little about anything all week—he knows that a good round today will regain him respect. And it’s in the air that a victory would be even bigger than the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when he won on a broken leg; finishing on top here might legitimately be judged the most dramatic win in golf history. It would mean redemption, a goal that suddenly seems more important than surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships.
Now it’s go time. Tiger’s Sunday warm-ups are traditionally works of art, especially when he’s in contention. After three competitive rounds, he’s usually distilled what is working to its essence, and using a mix of adrenaline and focus, he can go through the whole bag without missing a shot. Despite having watched Tiger hit thousands of balls, I still feel that thrill that comes with seeing him with full command at close quarters. His swing begins with serene poise at address, continues with a smooth gathering of power, and then, with the coordinated explosion that announces a supreme athlete, uncoils in a marriage of speed and control, the ball seemingly collected more than hit by the clubface. As he relaxes into his balanced finish, the look Tiger gets on his face as he watches his ball fly is more peaceful than at any other moment.
But something is wrong. After a few balls, I can see Tiger is strangely detached. He’s taking too little time between swings, barely watching where the balls go, sometimes even taking one hand off the club before completing his follow-through. The flush yet cracking sound of his impact that for years has announced his superiority over other players isn’t quite the same. He’s having a terrible warm-up, almost as if he’s not really trying. Other than a few quick grimaces of disgust, his face remains eerily stoic.
I’m about ten feet away, standing behind him along his target line, checking to see if his club shaft is on plane, marking his head movement, assessing the ball flight, weighing whether to say something or continue to stay quiet. It’s what I’ve done as his coach during countless practice sessions over the past six years, but he’s acting as if I’m not there. I wait for some eye contact from Tiger, some words beyond a mumble, some sense of partnership in this warm-up and this moment. I get nothing. Since emerging from his meal in the clubhouse, he’s switched on that cold-blooded ability to leave a person—even someone close to him—hanging. Amazingly, right here, right now, Tiger is blowing me off.
This is the treatment. I got my initiation the second time I ever officially worked with him, on the practice range at Isleworth in March 2004. I’d stood my ground then, and I’m standing my ground now. Tiger doesn’t respond well when underlings ask him if something’s wrong, or worse, when they’ve done something wrong. His longtime but now former trainer, Keith Kleven, was always fretting about whether Tiger was mad at him. Rather than taking Keith’s concern as a show of loyalty, Tiger saw weakness. In his world of testosterone-fueled heroics and military hardness, that’s unacceptable.
He’s never done this at a major championship when he’s been in contention, so I’m not sure what he’s thinking. My best guess is that he’s carried over his aggravation from the night before, when the raw numbers on the scoreboard forced a realization that winning will be a long shot. He’s probably telling me in a passive-aggressive way that he doesn’t like the golf swing I’ve given him for this week. His swing problems could also be attributable to pain in his chronically injured left knee or some other body part, but he hasn’t complained about anything like that all week. Ultimately, there may be a far simpler reason for the chill I’m feeling from him: He’s firing me in the nonconfrontational way that’s more common to a breakup than a professional relationship.
Whatever is going on, I know one thing: He’s not going to explain.
I react clinically. Tiger is Tiger, in all his complexities, and my job is to adjust and adapt to him and keep finding ways to get his best. That’s always been a lot harder to do than people think. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. But since he’s returned from the Mississippi clinic where he followed a psychologically brutal program of self-examination, it’s gotten harder still.
He’s playing in this Masters after his most rushed, most erratic, and poorest preparation for a major championship ever. Five days before the first round, his game was so ragged it forced me to suggest a limited swing that has cost him distance and shot-making versatility but kept his misses playable.
It’s been a theme of my work with Tiger for much of our time together. Although it’s commonly thought that Tiger plays go-for-broke golf and tries the most difficult shots with no fear, it’s a false image. Tiger is, above all, a calculating golfer who plays percentages and makes sure to err on the safe side. What he abhors, and has built his career on avoiding, are the kinds of mistakes that produce bogeys or worse and kill both momentum and confidence—wild tee shots that produce penalty strokes, loose approaches that leave no chance to save par, blown short putts. These blunders are the stuff of high scores, and after such a round, a tour player or caddie will often lament “the big miss.” Avoiding the big miss was a big part of what made Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus so great, and it’s a style that Tiger has emulated. Until recently, his entire life seemed free of the big miss. But things change.
It’s why the game Tiger has brought to Augusta has been less powerful, less versatile, and less likely to shoot a low number than his A game. But it’s fulfilled its purpose by producing consistent scores of 68, 70, and 70 to stay in contention.
Now Tiger knows that he’ll almost certainly need something in the mid-60s to have a chance to win, and I’m getting the sense he’s unhappy that the style of play we’ve prepared is going to lack the kind of firepower such a round usually requires. He’s also aware that he’s never come from behind on a Sunday to win any of his 14 major championships. In his current state, the odds are against his making that breakthrough, and it’s not helping his mood.
I have the feeling that Tiger is most aggravated that he’s spotting three strokes to Mickelson. Tiger has always had a chilly relationship with Phil. Some of it is personality, but most of it is that Mickelson possesses the kind of talent that has made him a legitimate threat to Tiger’s supremacy. Phil’s popularity with the fans and gentle treatment from the media add to Tiger’s annoyance. For years Tiger reveled in the idea that Mickelson had trouble playing in his presence. But Phil adjusted, and in recent years he’s outplayed Tiger down the stretch in several tournaments. His increased confidence against Tiger, along with the positive energy of the gallery, has flipped the psychological advantage in their matchup in his favor. Phil has won two of the last six Masters, both victories coming on the lengthened and narrowed Augusta course that has given Tiger—who won three of his four on the earlier design—trouble. I sense that Tiger has begun to press against Mickelson, making today’s mountain that much higher.
Then again, at this Masters, Tiger has already accomplished a great deal. In the first tournament he’s played in five months—a period in which he’s suffered public humiliation, the painful, regimented program designed to look into a psyche he never before questioned, the ordeal of his televised February 19 public apology, which was so anticipated that it preempted network programming, and the certainty that his wife will soon file for divorce—he’s battled furiously and played amazingly well. He’s made more mistakes than usual but nearly offset them with short bursts of truly spectacular golf. By the end of the tournament, he will have made a total of 17 birdies and a record four eagles in 72 holes, a 25-under-par barrage that will exceed his sub-par holes in 1997 when he won by 12 and set the tournament record on a much shorter golf course. Considering where he was a few weeks ago, I consider having a part in where he is my best job of short-term coaching ever.
In my mind, Tiger is playing with house money. As a person who has lost so much, he should be feeling that this final round presents him with everything to gain. But as I watch him rake another ball out of the pile without looking up, there’s zero indication he sees things that way. He hasn’t been going through our practice progression of the Nine Shots—in which he hits the nine possible ball flights with each club—in a regimented way. Somehow, his devotion to excellence, the quality that most identifies him to the world, is missing.
But what I’ve learned at close quarters is that excellence, year after year, is exhausting. Late at night, I’ve been wondering if the 2010 Masters would mark the moment Tiger didn’t want to be Tiger Woods anymore. It’s not something I’ve said to many people, because it sounds so absurd, but I’ve often thought, even when Tiger’s game was at its peak, that because of insane expectations that even he can’t fulfill, there is no harder person to be in the world than Tiger Woods.
I look over at Steve Williams, standing a few feet away next to Tiger’s bag. He’s carried it for 13 major-championship victories since 1999, which, without even counting his long and very successful stints with Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd, make him the greatest caddie in history. He’s been in my corner from the beginning, in part because he’d been in favor of Tiger leaving his former swing coach Butch Harmon and wanted Butch’s successor to do well. Steve has his hard-ass game face on and hasn’t said a word, but we’re brothers in arms, and when our eyes meet, so do our thoughts.
What is going on? Scandal or no scandal, aren’t these the moments Tiger has always said he worked for? Lived for? The times when his ability to hyperfocus and be mentally bulletproof give him his most important advantage over the competition? The times he’s always said he relishes the most?
But Tiger, tellingly, is not relishing this. His attitude is straight-up horrible. Now, at the moment of truth, it’s a defining signal.
I doubt anyone has a greater appreciation for how great Tiger is than I do. He’s a genius in the most exacting sport there is—physically, technically, mentally, emotionally. Nicklaus might have the greatest overall record, but no one has ever played golf as well as Tiger Woods, and no one has ever been better than his competition by a wider margin. He’s the greatest.
But life is about loss. With the cold part of my mind that keeps any sadness momentarily walled off, I make the call. He’s become less of a golfer, and he’s never going to be the same again.
Tiger Woods is sullen the first time I meet him. Maybe even a little rude. But also, without a doubt, fascinating.
It’s May 1993, and Tiger is a 17-year-old amateur who has come to Dallas to play in the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Classic on a sponsor’s exemption. He and his father, Earl, are staying in the home of Ernie and Pam Kuehne, whose three kids—Trip, Hank, and Kelly—are all successful junior golfers I teach. Ernie, Hank, and Kelli have brought Tiger and Earl to the Hank Haney Golf Ranch—it’s a former horse farm with converted barns and stables—in the North Dallas suburb of McKinney to show them where they practice and introduce them to the coach who helps them with their games.
I’m giving a lesson when I see the five of them appear from behind one of the barns. I think, Wow, that’s Tiger Woods! Like everyone in golf, I’ve heard a lot about Tiger and am excited to see him in the flesh. More than any junior golfer ever, he’s famous. He’s won his age group at the Optimist Junior World tournament almost every year since he was eight. He’s won the U.S. Junior Amateur twice, and in a few months he’ll make it three in a row. No male player has ever done those things.
I take a break to walk over and say hello. Tiger is gangly from a recent growth spurt, about six feet but weighing less than 150 pounds, and the bagginess of what has to be an XL-size golf shirt only accentuates his lankiness. But skinny as he is, he looks golf strong. His is a body built for clubhead speed.
I tell Tiger what a pleasure it is to meet him, and congratulate him on his accomplishments. He seems sleepy, and when I put out my hand, he takes it weakly. It reminds me of the light grip you get from older touring pros who believe a regular shake might mess up their touch. I notice that Tiger’s hand seems kind of delicate, the fingers long and thin.