[This is the second of three Tiger Woods-related pieces I will write this week. In this one, Section A deals with age, Section B with injury.]
Section A: There is a reason the PGA created a tour for players who have reached age 50. And there’s a reason a lot of 40-something former PGA Tour pros can’t wait for their 50th birthdays.
After a certain age, all things being equal, our golf skills begin to diminish. That’s undeniable. Non-negotiable. For years, age 35 or thereabouts was considered the sweet spot for golf performance. Nowadays, most seem to think the peak comes even earlier.
No one would claim the prime time for touring pros comes after age 40. In fact, the common image for a PGA Tour player in that age group is of a pro hanging on for dear life, playing lesser events on sponsor exemptions, trying to hold his game together until his 50th birthday arrives. When he turns 50, he finds himself a “young gun” once again, playing against even older players on the Senior Tour.
Tiger Woods is 39 years old. And you’ve heard it before: He’s an old 39, having had numerous injuries and surgical procedures.
Woods apologists often point to “ancient warriors” like Hogan or Nicklaus or Vijay Singh: Hogan won the Triple Crown at age 40; Nicklaus won the Masters at age 46; Vijay’s amazing peak came at ages 40 through 42.
Closer examination, however, shows those three anomalies are not so anomalous after all. Nicklaus won a grand total of five times after turning 38. Hogan never won again after his 40th year. Even Vijay, a late bloomer with no history of injury, won his last at age 45, just four years after his 9-win season, his best ever.
And for every Hogan and Nicklaus, who did wonderful, if limited, things post-40, there are far more examples of guys who did the opposite. Tom Watson won only three times after the age of 34. Seve Ballesteros won only three times after age 35. The list of great players who never won much after their mid-30s is long.
For many years, until quite recently, we were lectured that Woods was immune to aging because “he’s an athlete” who works out hard in the gym. We were assured he would be pretty much the same player at age 60 as he was at age 32. Now, of course, we see Woods’s focus on body-building in the gym led to injury and early decay in his playing ability, quite the opposite of the narrative.
Many Woods fans are new to golf and have never before watched a favorite player go, inevitably, into decline. They hear about Jack’s famous Masters victory at age 46 and treat it not as the joyous one-in-a-million sports miracle it was, but as a matter-of-course outcome due all Great Players.
After his recent 82 at Phoenix, Woods fans are getting a dose of reality. They suddenly have little desire to back him by wagering, even though he has won many times at the San Diego Open. There is a massive perception change. Last year the odds on Woods winning were 5-2. This year, they are 50-1. That’s a staggering change in the public’s perception, especially given Woods is now fully healthy (or so he says).
Of course, you know as well as I do, should Woods shoot 72-70-68-70 this week and finish T-28, the fan and media narrative will quickly return to a fantasyland where Tiger Woods is Peter Pan and never ages.
Section B: Much has been said and written about Woods’s “new swing” this year. We have been told the swing is more upright. We have been told Woods is producing greater ball speed. We have been told this is the old swing of his glory days.
However, no one has speculated that Woods changed to this new upright stance because it is the only way he can swing without feeling pain or re-injuring himself, even though it seems a rather obvious theory to me.
While the golf media never tires of discussing Woods, there are certain topics they avoid like the plague. The limits placed upon Woods by injury and age are as unacknowledged and unspoken as the sex scandal and Woods’s ties to PED doctors.
That explains why the meme du jour is that Woods has “the yips,” that the problem is all in Woods’s head. Because age and physical deterioration are permanent. With a mental problem, well, gosh, you can just go see a psychiatrist or read “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” Just flip a switch and you’ll have Tiger 2000 all over again. Langer and DiMarco had the putting yips, and they cured them, doncha know. But with age and injury, there is no such switch.
We know this: Woods repeatedly injured and re-injured himself last year. Both before and after his back surgery, he fought pain and played poorly.
Here is a likely scenario: During the off season, Woods healed completely; he went out to hit balls; he re-injured his back; he had to find a new swing fast. The swing he found, this new one with a markedly more upright stance, allows him to play injury-free. The problem is: he can’t play well with this swing.
So Woods has a dilemma: (1) Play poorly and remain healthy, hoping he can eventually hone the swing into something PGA-worthy; (2) Play better now using last year’s swing, but knowing re-injury is almost a certainty.