At one point during his at the U.S. Open on Thursday, Tiger Woods found himself on the side of a steep hill with his tee ball—which he had carved at least fifty yards offline—sitting in deep fescue grass, about a foot below his feet. He crouched down, head forward, looking more like a sumo wrestler than the winner of fourteen major championships, and took a mighty whack. The ball took off at a strange angle and landed in some more tall stuff on the other side of the fairway. As Tiger followed through, the club, a short iron, came out of his hands and flew over his left shoulder, ending up about twenty or third yards behind him.
As this bizarre scene was unfolding, the two , which is broadcasting the U.S. Open for the first time, remained silent for a moment. They happened to be two of the best ball strikers in the history of the game: Greg Norman and Tom Weiskopf. Then Norman said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy release a club like that in all my years of play, Tom.” Weiskopf, who suffered a harrowing slump of his own after looking like a world beater for a couple of years in the early nineteen-seventies, gathered his thoughts. When you are playing really well, he said, like Tiger did for most of his career, you can’t even imagine playing badly. And when you are playing badly, you can’t even remember what it felt like to play well. “It’s tough to watch,” Weiskopf added.
In a sense, that’s true, but Tiger’s abject collapse, which began well before this week, is also compelling viewing. As with a wreck you pass on a highway, it’s hard to avoid sneaking a peek. And in this case, since it’s only a game, and nobody except Tiger is really suffering, and he’s a multi-multi millionaire, there’s no reason not to pull over and get a closer look. Especially when, on the East Coast, it’s also being shown live, in prime time—a first for major championships.
For those of you who aren’t golf fans and wonder what the fuss is about, a few comparisons might help. It is as if Itzhak Perlman was having trouble with Suzuki Book 2, Nadia Comaneci couldn’t do a walkover, or Michael Jordan couldn’t make a jump shot. On the first hole, Tiger had a routine six-iron to the green. He hit the turf behind the ball and came up short, winding up with a bogey. That led to eight more bogeys, including a triple on fourteen, and a final score of eighty, ten over par. All day, he missed the fairways. Twice, he failed to get the ball out of sand traps—a routine shot for golf professionals.
The came on the long par-five eighteenth. After hitting a rare straight drive, Tiger was left with a long downhill shot to the green, of the sort he used to hit like a laser. After selecting a fairway wood and winding up in textbook fashion, he lurched down from the top of his backswing and barely made contact with the top of the ball, which scuttled along the fairway like a hare and ran into a deep sand trap.
In golf lingo, Tiger had “topped” it—something beginners and hackers struggling with their swings do all the time. If he had played such a shot in his prime, the air would have been blue and the offending club would have been no more. Now, though, he appears resigned to such indignities. After hitting the ground half-heartedly with his club, he sighed, took a couple of deep breaths, and shook his head a couple of times. “I don’t know what to say,” Norman commented. “I really don’t know what to say.”
Plenty of other people do. For every sports fan calling into his local sports-radio station, there is a different theory to explain Tiger’s demise. It’s the injuries: a blown left knee, damaged ankles, back surgery last year to deal with a pinched nerve. It’s the troubled private life: after being disgraced in the tabloids in 2009, and getting divorced in 2010, he recently ended a relationship with the skiier Lindsey Vonn. It’s the missing dad: Tiger’s beloved father, Earl, died back in 2006. It’s the steroids: though there is no evidence Tiger has ever used performance-enhancing drugs, rumors persist about his , a Canadian doctor who was arrested in 2009, but never charged, on suspicion of supplying athletes with P.E.D.s. It’s Father Time: Tiger is thirty-nine, and has been playing professionally for nineteen years.
The truth is that nobody knows what’s up with Tiger—not even Tiger himself, probably. After his round on Thursday, what he’s been saying for months. He’s working on yet another swing change; because of his injuries, he hasn’t been able to practice as much as he’d like; things are coming along, but it’s a long process. “When I do it right, it’s so easy,” he said. “Its easy to control, it’s easy to do it, it’s easy to hit all my shots. I just need to do it more often.” Tiger hasn’t lost his capacity for understatement. But his golf game has disappeared in spectacular fashion. As he teed off his second round on Thursday morning, the rubberneckers were gathering.
He had another dismal round, shooting a six-over-par seventy-six. As he trudged off the eighteenth green, he was tied for a hundred and fifty-fourth place: second last. Having missed the cut, he’ll be watching the rest of the tournament on television. ThatÆs assuming he can bear to watch.