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Tiger still too Strong

He may have lost the mental edge but can will still win majors

Posted Mar 12, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

woods 3

Break open the champagne all you concerned benefactors of the PGA Tour.  With a two-stroke victory in the Cadillac Championship, Tiger Woods has demonstrated beyond argument that he’s back.    Well he is, isn’t he?   Surely there’s nothing more he needs to do to convince the doubters?

I’m afraid considerable doubt still lingers as to whether Woods is on the verge of recapturing his former dominance of the tournament scene.  And while his many admirers will try to convince themselves that he has nothing further to prove, the player himself is acutely aware of the real truth.  He knows that an emphatic riposte to his critics can be delivered only through victory in another Major championship.

It would be different, of course, if we were talking about the Tiger of old. That was when the player’s greatest advantage over the competition was his head. When he was invariably tougher, mentally, than the competition. He knew he was going to win; opponents knew that he knew he was going to win, and he knew that they knew he was going to win.

But everything changed utterly in the wake of an altercation with a fire-hidrant near his home in Isleworth in late November 2009.  Where he had previously been viewed as mentally strong enough to cope with any adversity, he now became curiously vulnerable when confronted by his own self-destructiveness.

Padraig Harrington spoke for all of Woods’s rivals when he remarked: “I thought he was tougher, mentally.  I thought he was strong enough to ride out this storm.”  The three-time Major winner never thought to consider that this would have been to ascribe superhuman powers to the world number one.  Yet in truth, that’s the way his rivals viewed him, when he was sweeping everything before him.  In fact, even after experiencing the Nicklaus era, I found myself thinking of Woods as a quite extraordinary talent, when I watched him surge to an astonishing, 15-stroke victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.

As things happened, it took dramatic events to prove otherwise.  And now that he has shown himself to be human, we are forced to view him in such terms, with all the frailties this encompasses.  Indeed the evidence was there at Doral on Sunday, in his play of the treacherous, 72nd hole.  Even with a three-stroke lead on the tee, he visibly stumbled en route to a closing bogey, by blocking his drive right and almost dumping a simple, short-iron third-shot into water guarding the left side of the green.

His problem lay in the fact that while he had secured 16 previous victories in an amazing dominance of World Golf Championship events, his last one had been in the Bridgestone Invitational in August 2009, three months prior to his fall from grace. Since the exposure of his off-course dalliances, his best finish in a WGC event was tied sixth in the HSBC Championship of 2010 and he had to endure the set-back of a withdrawal during last year’s Cadillac with Achilles tendon trouble.

Undoubtedly, there have been glimpses of former glories in three PGA Tour wins last year and a recent victory at Torrey Pines.  But the harsh reality is that we’re never again going to see the dominance of a decade ago.  And when we accept the mental scars inflicted by Woods’s philandering, as Harrington was forced to acknowledge, all of the other problems associated with a lengthy, tournament career, come into play.

For instance, while he will continue to have his good days with the blade, there will no longer be the consistency one associates with steady, young nerves.  And strong as his desire for further glories may continue to burn, an ageing body won’t always be able to respond to those mental demands.

My belief is that Woods has been irreparably scarred by the events which exploded into the public domain on that fateful November night in Florida.  Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he has lost the capacity to add to his haul of 14 Major titles.  In fact I see considerable merit in the argument that he is still too good a player not to increase that formidable tally.

But the mental dominance over his rivals, is no longer there.  Nor is the one-time, supreme confidence in his own ability.  So, if we are to salute a re-birth of the once peerless Tiger, let it not be on the basis of a WGC victory, impressive and all as last Sunday was.  The real tests with come at Augusta National, Merion, Muirfield and Oak Hill.  And nobody is more aware of this than Woods himself.

- Dermot Gilleece

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