Post-Open family break reflects Tiger's new reality, mortal limitations

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Tiger has raised his game to being on par with the best if not consistently dominating them. (AP)  
Tiger has raised his game to being on par with the best if not consistently dominating them. (AP)  

After a weekend skid that left him hopelessly out of contention at the U.S. Open, a tournament in which he held a piece of the halfway lead, plenty of guys would have done the predictable after such a major disappointment.

Gone home to hone.

But not Tiger Woods.

"I didn't really practice a lot this [past] week," Woods said on Tuesday. "I was with my kids, and I got away from the game, and I was just present with them."

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This is all about the present, actually.

Rest assured, there's nothing wrong with spending time with the fam, of course. But the preceding underscores, in matter-of-fact terms, the new reality in Woods World as he heads into one of the busiest stretches of his career.

Through the Ryder Cup matches later this fall, Woods won't have a single two-week break. He's semi-hosting the AT&T National event this week at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., then playing next week in West Virginia. At the British Open next month in England, it'll be three starts in four weeks.

After an unpredictably wild season in which the only constancy has been a lack of consistency, Woods has proven that he's rebuilt his game to a high-enough degree that he can again play with the elite in the sport, which has been more than enough to re-engage millions of fan eyeballs, ticketholders along the gallery ropes, and even generate some outside income opportunities.

But after playing in 13 official events since last fall, the numbers on his scorecards are becoming as clear as graffiti sprayed on a white wall: This might be as good as it gets. Nothing wrong with that, either. But it's a darn sight short of what some had envisioned after a promising start to 2012 -– winning multiple majors, rolling up scalps and taking fine sandpaper to the rough spots in his game.

Yet, the same jagged edges still remain, and by all indications, that isn't going to change much going forward, for a couple of pretty decent reasons.

Because of personal priorities and physical limitations, and maybe even a dimmed inner fire, Woods isn't working as hard as he used to.

Imagine a 2005-era Woods blowing a lead at a major and heading home to do, essentially, nothing. Or, try to picture Woods of 2008 saying the following, as he did this week at Congressional:

"I would say, certainly, my short game has been something that has taken a hit, and it did the same thing when I was working with Butch [Harmon] and the same thing when I was working with Hank [Haney]," Woods said.

Well, yes and no -- it was never this uneven for this long. Woods' wedge and finesse play has been intermittently decent yet mostly brutal, and he ranks among the worst players on tour in terms of effectiveness from inside 150 yards. That's been the case for months, and nothing has changed.

Some of the causes are sobering.

For those who have been listening, and we mean really paying attention, Woods has indicated that he can't work as hard in the gym as he would like, or at least as much as he once did. Plus, the physical limitations in his legs make putting in time on the practice range more difficult. In fact, his latest swing change was made, in part, to take stress off his left knee, which has been the target of four surgeries.

Moreover, at some point the skill of every top player begins to deteriorate. Woods' putting stroke, once the most reliable move in the history of the game, began to misfire three or four years ago. He never made every clutch putt, of course, but it sure seemed that way at times. Not anymore.

As for intangibles he cannot control, while Woods was attempting to rebuild his personal and professional reputation over the past three seasons, the number of first-time winners on the PGA Tour stacked up like traffic on the Washington Beltway. As Woods went 30 months without an official PGA Tour win, we lost track at 30-something maiden victories logged in that span back in early February. That represents a small army of players who have few, if any, bruises from Tiger skirmishes.

As for the fuel in his internal engine, only Woods understands how much he really wants it. But when a guy hints that he can't practice as much, work out as hard as he once did, or is expecting not to practice much at all, it's telling.

After Woods won at Memorial earlier this month, the overnight chat-show question became, "Is he back?" In his next start, at Olympic Club, he blew a 36-hole lead at a major championship for the second time in 10 tries.

Woods has proven that in his good weeks, he still better than the rest. It's just that those stretches have become far more fleeting, and infinitely more unpredictable. If he is unable or unwilling, or perhaps a sprinkle of both, to log the limitless hours he once invested in his game, how can we expect the results to demonstrably change?

Country songs can be corny and cringe-inducing, but every so often, an artist launches a lyrical riff that's memorable, not to mention applicable, in many walks of life. Two-thirds of the way through the 2012 season, Woods seems a lot like the guy in that Toby Keith tune of a couple of years ago, where a man approaching middle age acknowledges a few of his limitations.

Whether he likes them or not, he's mindful of them. Just the way it is.

"I ain't as good as I once was. But I'm as good once as I ever was."

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