You may know that this is not the first time my great good friend Michael Rosenberg and I have disagreed on the future of Tiger Woods. Yes, Michael is back again to shout that Tiger Woods will be great again and really soon. A year or so ago, Michael wrote that people who write off Tiger Woods are dead wrong … and doing him a personal favor by giving him extra incentive. I disagreed with both points. I thought the people who wrote off Tiger — depending on what we mean by “write off” — were more likely right than wrong, and anyway I never thought Tiger Woods has done well in an “us against the world” scenario. I don’t think he’s a guy who feeds of disrespect. I think he likes it best when everyone knows that he’s the best player going.
At that time, my opinion was a pretty distinct minority. I certainly wasn’t alone on the “Tiger will probably never be the same” airplane, but I do know there were plenty of empty seats and plenty of overhead storage available.
In the last year, though — a year in which Tiger spit on the green, threw clubs, blew a four-shot lead in his own tournament … when his average finish was 25th (not even counting the time he missed the cut or the time he withdrew) — the conventional wisdom has certainly shifted. Nobody seems willing, and nobody should seem willing, to call Tiger Woods finished. He’s earned more respect than that. He’s been too great for that. But the majority opinion now seems to be that Tiger probably won’t ever dominate the game again.
In other words, I admire my guy Rosenberg because now his opinion seems to me to be in the minority. He believes that Tiger is on the brink of another great run. And he absolutely could be right. But I don’t think he is right. And I have three reasons:
* * *
I can, in three steps, make a case that C.C. Sabathia will win 400 games.
Step 1: Sabathia has 157 wins, and he is 30 years old.
Step 2: Jamie Moyer won 233 games after he was 30 years old.
Step 3: Sabathia is better than Jamie Moyer.
So there you go. Add Moyer’s 233 to Sabathia’s 157 — that’s 390 victories. Sabathia’s better so he should get at least 10 more wins. That’s 400 victories.
So what’s wrong with that logic? Everything. There’s is almost zero chance that Sabathia will win anywhere close to 400 games … 300 will be tough. People age differently. Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball history, but that doesn’t mean he will pitch in his 40s the way Hoyt Wilhelm did. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but Karl Malone was a better player in his late 30s. Dan Marino might be the best pure passer in the history of the NFL, but at age 37 or 38 I’d have taken Rich Gannon first.
So to say that because Angel Cabrera won a Masters at age 40 that Tiger Woods can do the same rings like a false argument to me. To say that Phil Mickelson won three majors after he turned 35 is interesting but doesn’t necessarily relate to Tiger (Mickelson won two of them the year he was 35, by the way).
History suggests that golfers decline noticeably in their mid-to-late 30s, and while there are exceptions they are just that … exceptions. Could Tiger Woods be an exception? Sure. But he’s 35 now, and he does not seem to be off to a roaring start. His best finish as a 35-year-old is 10th.
Oh, and I have to call Michael on one of my pet peeves — the statistical misdirection. In the piece, he mentioned that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older. Always beware when you see a strange-looking number like “16” in a statistic.
Yes, it is true that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older — Mickelson twice, the gracefully aging Vijay Singh and Mark O’Meara, the old timers with one more burst of glory Faldo and Crenshaw, and the aforementioned Cabrera. But there’s a reason that Michael cut it off at 16. It’s also true that only eight of the last 32 Masters winners and only 10 of the last 45 Masters winners were 35 or older.
Anyway, Tiger Woods will age how he ages. Does he have bursts of glory left in him? I would guess yes. Great golfers can have magical weeks long after their prime has set. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Will Tiger win again? Sure. Will he win another major? Probably. But the question is: “Can he become the best player in the world again?” And that’s a whole different thing. And the odds are against him.
One thing that entertains me, I must admit, are the people who say Tiger will age well because of his grueling training regiment. Maybe. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can make the argument that that Tiger Woods has lived a particularly restful life up to now … or that he’s a young 35.
* * *
2. Swing changes
One thing Tiger and the people who believe he will be dominant again like to point out is that he’s been through slumps like this before. For instance, after he won the Masters in 1997, he then went through a series of swing changes and did not win a major for more than two years … a period that some people seem to be referring to as a slump.
He had another 2 1/2 year major drought from mid-2002 to the Masters in 2005. Again, people call it a slump. As Tiger has said: “I’ve been through this before.”
Only … he really hasn’t. Those “slumps” were very different. In 2003 and 2004, he won six times, won more money than anyone except Vijay Singh, finished in the Top 10 some 25 times. It was only a “slump” in the remarkable world of Tiger Woods. And in 1998 and 1999, he won nine times, won more money than anybody in the world, and he was only 23 years old.
This is fundamentally different. He’s older. He’s had serious knee surgery. he’s been caught from behind. He’s not changing his swing — like he did at 23 — with an eye on immortality. He’s changing his swing now because he’s hitting the ball into nearby fast food parking lots. And he’s just not playing well. It’s not that he’s not playing well for Tiger Woods — he’s not playing well for a top PGA Tour golfer. He has not won a tournament of any kind since 2009 even though he only plays tournaments that are custom built for his game. Since finishing fourth at last year’s U.S. Open, he has finished out of the Top 20 more often than he has finished inside the Top 20. He has only finished in the Top 5 once, and that was at his own tournament when he blew a big lead.
And there’s something else: Tom Watson famously changed his swing after winning his first British Open in 1975. This led to a disappointing 1976, only Watson was not disappointed because he felt certain that his new swing could help him become the best player in the world. He was right. In 1977, he out-dueled Jack Nicklaus at Augusta and Turnberry. He became the best in the world and was PGA Tour player of the year six of the next eight years.
When Watson started to struggle a bit with his game — he won his last major at 33 — he changed his swing again. And the swing changes worked beautifully. Watson will tell you he hit the ball better at 40 than he he did at 30, might have hit the ball better at 50 than he did at 40. Approaching 60, he could still hit the ball so well he almost won a British Open for the ages.
But, even a master of ball-striking like Tom Watson did not win any more majors after 33. He could not sustain his place on top of the golfing world. You know why: He stopped sinking putts. Tiger Woods’ putting and chipping — long the most underrated part of his miraculous game — no longer seems quite as sharp. If that part of his game drops even a little bit … well, as one pro golfer once told me: “We’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from the championship. And we’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from getting real jobs.”
* * *
3. The Harshness of Golf Reality
You have probably seen the famous footage of an old Joe Namath holding his hand up as he runs into the end zone. The hand up is a clear, “Don’t hit me I’m absurdly old,” gesture. And the defensive players — out of respect, I assume — don’t hit him.
Other sports offer a human element that is not really present in golf. Derek Jeter might be struggling with his own age issues, but it is true that he will face pitchers who grew up idolizing him. He will face teams that will respect him for all that he’s done. He will be judged by home plate umpires who admire him. This isn’t to say that anyone will take it easy on him — that obviously won’t happen — but it is to say that Derek Jeter, the name, does still carry a bit of weight in baseball.
Tiger Woods certainly cashed in on his name through the years — many golfers, seeing his name on top of the leaderboard, would subtly change their games. This was especially true on Sunday. Golf has never had a better frontrunner than Tiger Woods.
But golf, the game itself, does not bend to Tiger’s will. He will be exactly as good as his score, no better and no worse. it doesn’t matter if he gets mad, if he feels confident, if he tries harder, if he believes that he’s read the putt well … none of it matters except how many swings it takes for him to put the ball in 72 holes. Golf is a cold game that way. Tiger Woods could be in the best place mentally of his entire life. But if he shoots 74, he shoots 74. If his putt lips out, his putt lips out.
That harshness has always suited Woods. He’s never been sentimental about golf. The first time he showed up in Augusta he was a 19-year old amateur, and he was asked what he hoped to accomplish his first time around. “To win,” he said. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly where he was going.
Now, though, I don’t think Tiger Woods is quite sure. This Masters feels like a big tournament for him. If he can contend — if he can win — it will once again make him the biggest story in sports. And that could springboard him right back to the sort of run that Michael is talking about. It would be foolish to say that’s not possible.
But “possible” and “likely” are two different things. And if Woods hacks it around a bit in Augusta, never really works into contention, plays the way he has played for the last year or so, well, I think it’s just one more sign that we’re all getting older. The years tend to go in only one direction.