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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2012

COMMENTARY

Woods shows there is still only 1 Tiger

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNSIT

The United States Golf Association is mostly a humorless bunch, although its early round U.S. Open pairings often bring a smile to our lips.

Like the Korean initials pairing -- K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang, and K.T. Kim. D.A. Points wanted in, but he was the wrong nationality.

Then there was the World Top 3 pairing -- Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, and Lee Westwood. There was no attempt by the USGA to be amusing here, but it sort of ended up that way when the three finished 36 holes at a combined 26-over par and with two of them missing the cut.

Finally, there was the much-ballyhooed America's Big 3 pairing -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson.

It's funny, I guess, that since Tiger won his first major championship at the Masters in 1997, we've been searching for the next Tiger, the next great rivalry, the next latest or greatest thing in golf.

And darned if it isn't still the same thing … the same guy.

Woods may not win this weekend at Olympic Club. It's certainly harder to tout his chances after a stinker of a start on Saturday. Plus, there is quality, veteran competition, guys like Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell, Ernie Els, and Westwood, to name a few, who know what it means to grind and plod, to gut out pars and be happy with them.

A golf course with such severe pitch to its fairways, one that gets crusty and fast beyond belief, where landing approach shots on the greens is sometimes a recipe for disaster, can make the best players look foolish. Even Woods is not immune. So there is no guarantee.

But when you watch the tempo, the repetitiveness of his swing, regardless of which club he is hitting, he appears to be the same preeminent shot-maker of pre-Thanksgiving, 2009, when everything changed. It has been a long three years, give or take, but for all the time and effort we've put into finding the next Tiger, perhaps there should be the realization that what we've come up with is the same Tiger.

It was just a year or so ago that Watson took Woods to task over swing changes and his mental approach, and then Bubba backed it up with his folk-hero win at the Masters.

At Olympic, Bubba pulled out that big pink driver and seemed to challenge his playing partners to a duel. Mickelson did his best with far from his best stuff, and Tiger merely shrugged and answered mostly with irons and fairway woods, hitting what the commentators like to call stingers. Bubba was stung. He missed the cut.

Then there was that World Rankings Pairing. Luke Donald is No. 1 despite never having won a major, and that won't change this weekend. He was all but dead after opening with a 79. Rory McIlroy missed the cut, too, while No. 3 Westwood, also without a major title on his resume at age 39 despite some consistent efforts, survived at 5-over and pulled even closer Saturday.

McIlroy, suddenly, is an enigma. We anointed him as the perfect young golfer, both in swing and mentality, after he fearlessly dismantled Congressional last June while winning the U.S. Open with a record 16-under total.

But he compiled 13 bogeys and just three birdies in 36 holes at Olympic, and it was his fourth missed cut in five starts, the Players Championship and Memorial being among the others.

A year ago he seemed invincible.

Now he just seems lost. Rory certainly doesn't look like the next Tiger.

Maybe the cautionary tale for all of us is to quit pressing for the next Tiger and enjoy the one we still have, regardless of how the weekend plays out, as he chases his fourth Open title and his 15th major championship.

Forget looking for the latest, and focus on the greatest the game has seen in a long, long time.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.


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