As the first major of the 2013 golf season approaches, there is great anticipation for what promises to be both a fascinating tournament and golfing year. There are many questions that are still to be answered; will the Tiger v Rory rivalry come to fruition? Will the likes of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood eventually lose the tag of being among the best golfers never to win a major? Yet, the principal question on many peoples’ minds is whether Tiger Woods can rediscover his best form and win majors again. It has been a dramatic fall from grace since his last major win at the 2008 US Open, when titles such as the “greatest golfer ever”, even the “greatest sportsman ever” were often bestowed upon the 14 time major winner.
Prior to his first injury-forced break from the sport in 2008, such was his dominance; it seemed only a matter of time before he surpassed Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. However, injuries and revelations about his private life forced him to take several breaks from golf, and now some four years on, some are questioning whether he will be able to triumph again in the major championships.
In 2012 he yet again found himself unable to capture any of the four most coveted trophies in golf, but it is the way in which he performed in the final rounds of these majors that will cast some doubt in the minds of even the most optimistic of Tiger Woods fans. In three of the four majors, he played his way into contention prior to the final round, before fading in a way which was very unlike the Tiger of old.
In the high pressure situations of the final round he was unable to rely upon his swing, and perhaps more crucially, he was unable to turn to his putting to dig him out of trouble when it really mattered. His scores in the final round of the 2012 majors reflect this; failing to break par in any of them, with an average score of 73. It was in the final round of the British Open last year that his lack of confidence in his own game was laid bare. Despite the fact that he was chasing a lead and in effect had nothing to lose, he refused to take the driver off most of the tees, which left many baffled as he subsequently drifted out of contention.
It is important however, to remember that 2012 represented Woods’ first full, injury free season since returning from injury in 2009. He highlighted this point in his blog entry last December; “Golf-wise, there’s really no comparison between this year and last year. This year, I got a chance to play a full season, compete and win golf tournaments, whereas last year, I was hurt most of the time”. It is easy to forget that he still won three titles in 2012, thus taking his total PGA Tour titles to 74, one more than Jack Nicklaus, with only Sam Snead ahead of Woods on the all time record list. At the very least 2012 should be looked upon as progress for Woods; he has developed an increased consistency, illustrated by the ten top 10’s he achieved in his 19 tournaments.
It is a season which would very much be regarded as a success for the vast majority of tour professionals, but of course the American is no ordinary golfer, and such is the magnitude of his previous achievements, it seems inevitable that his success is now almost solely judged on how many majors he wins. And, it appears that Woods will judge himself on these same terms; reaffirming his priorities for the 2013 season by stating that he is “just trying to win those big four tournaments.”
As he approaches the age of 40, and with the emergence of a new generation of talented golfers, headed by the prodigious talents of Rory McIlroy, the chances of him surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18 majors do appear to have diminished somewhat. However, prior to winning his 18th major at the age of 46, it is often overlooked that Jack Nicklaus went through a six year spell without winning a major. A possible rivalry with someone like McIIroy may in actual fact help Woods according to Nicklaus; “Tiger probably needs somebody to pop him a few times so he gets a chance to go pop it back.” He went on to cite his rivalry with Arnold Palmer as one which was beneficial during his career; “We competed hard against each other, we both felt it was healthy.” Yet, Woods has remained indifferent to a potential rivalry: ”Whether we develop a rivalry remains to be seen. Let’s just let it play out and see where it takes us. We’ll look at the results the next five or ten years and see if it becomes a rivalry or not.”
Since limping off at both the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines and the Masters, injuries have also cast doubts over his abilities to compete at the highest level in the years to come. He has had to deal with significant problems with his left leg and knee, and recent swing changes have been made in light of these problems.
It is evident that staying injury free remains of crucial importance to his chances of breaking the major record. Rather than question whether his golf game can hold up to the pressures of major tournaments, perhaps a more prudent question is whether his body can continue to allow him to compete for major trophies in years to come.
Despite a host of obstacles that now seem to be in front of Woods in his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, we must not forget the attributes that set him apart in the past and established him as arguable the greatest ever player. Aside from his technical and athletic abilities, his mental strength was second to none, and often seemed to give him a head start before a ball was even struck. This incredible asset of his undoubtedly gave him the edge over fellow competitors, especially when he was not at his best.
His domination of the game was unparallel to anything seen in this modern era, winning 14 majors and reshaping the golfing record books. One of Woods’ characteristics that is often overlooked is his incredible work ethic. As well as being thought of as a great student of the game, he is regarded as one of the hardest workers on the tour, and seems to be in a constant search for perfection with regards to his swing and technique. The fact that that he opted to make major swing changes throughout his career demonstrates his uncompromising determination to improve. Despite his extraordinary success prior to swing changes, he still chose to alter and strive to improve it.
His efforts look to be paying dividends this year, winning his last two tournaments, which has further established him as the favourite for the Masters. He has regained the world number one spot, and crucially, it appears that he his getting nearer his brilliant best with regards to his putting. And, with a course that is well suited to his game, combined with a brilliant record at Augusta, this week may well represent his best chance of winning a major since his last major win in 2008. His 40th placed finish last year was his worst finish at Augusta as a professional, but it looks almost certain he will be near the top of the leaderboard this time round.
It appears that in order to gain that elusive major win, it does not require perfection from Tiger Woods, yet he seems to demand it from himself. In the past it could be argued that this was a weakness of his, as he committed to change a swing which was so successful. However, by the end of his career we may well be left to admit that this demand for perfection was the very thing that enabled him to end his major drought, and eventually surpass the record of 18 majors – which would undoubtedly instil him as the greatest golfer ever to play the game.
Perhaps the best indicator is whether Woods himself truly believes he will win more majors. At his press conference in Torrey Pines earlier this year, when he was asked this very question, his response was simple: