Monday, April 9, 2007

Tiger Woods: Still Tiger, Still Human

In the aftermath of Zach Johnson's improbable victory at the Masters yesterday, much has been made of Tiger Woods' inability to hold his (brief) lead early in the final round or close the gap on Johnson over the last few holes. I was shocked to see ESPN's SportsNation question of the day, which basically asked whether we thought Tiger had lost his aura of intimidation.

Do we need to go over this every time Tiger doesn't win a major tournament? Tiger is still by far the best golfer in the game today, and the fact that his finishing second at Augusta comes as such a shock speaks volumes about how far ahead of the competition he really is. He has still won 4 of the last 9 major championships, and won seven consecutive PGA Tour events stretching into this year. He remains the number one player in the World Rankings, and is second in the PGA Tour FedEx Cup despite playing six fewer events than leader Vijay Singh.

Tiger clearly was fighting his swing the entire weekend, and it still took the performance of a lifetime from Zach Johnson to beat him. No golfer, not Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer, nor anyone else, is on top of his game every week. Playing his B game on a course specifically redesigned to stop him from dominating the field as he did in 1997, when he shot 18 under par and set course records for score under par and margin of victory (12 strokes), Woods still was in the hunt for the title until his par on the 17th.

Even while struggling, Woods still hit a couple vintage "Tiger shots". His second shot on 13 seemingly hung up on the back of the green forever but, as CBS audio picked up Tiger screaming "bite", rolled back to within 4 feet of the cup for an easy eagle putt. This shot on 11 miraculously landed on the fairway 50 yards from the pin:

Only Tiger even considers hitting that shot, let alone lands it on the fairway and saves par on maybe the toughest course in major championship history.

Tiger has won 12 majors. But he has also lost 30 that he has entered. He is still on pace to surpass Jack Nicklaus for most majors won, and should end his career as the greatest golfer to ever walk the planet. Who knows, if Johnson is paired with Tiger on Sunday, maybe he chokes and Woods wins his 13th major title. Hell, Stuart Appleby sure couldn't seem to handle the pairing, choking away a 54-hole lead with a 3-over 75 in the final round. We'll never know. But I do know this: Tiger hasn't lost anything. He's still Tiger Woods, and that still makes him better at golf than anyone in the history of the game.

UPDATE: Johnson after the Masters:
"I was sitting in the locker room waiting for Tiger to hit his second shot on 18. Before he hit it, I'm like, 'He's done stranger things.' The guy's a phenom. ... It makes it that much more gratifying knowing that I beat Tiger Woods. There's no question about it."
I'm pretty sure Tiger is just as intimidating as he always was. Johnson was just one of the few who didn't buckle under the pressure.

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