Is this the end?

2014-08-09 00:00

BESET by one injury after another, plagued by his inability to find the fairway with his driver, comparatively hapless on the greens, Tiger Woods’s quest to beat the Jack Nicklaus record of major title victories looks more and more like a mission impossible.

The bald fact is that in a couple of days’ time, this will be the fifth successive year in which he has failed to add to his tally of 14 majors.

When he tees it up next April in the Masters, he will be 39 and no golfer in his 40s has won more than a single major title. Age and history, once on his side, now conspire against his chances. These days are resplendent with ironies for Woods, although it is doubtful if he can appreciate an irony at the six paces from which he once sunk all crucial putts.

The young Adam Scott looked at Woods’s swing in 1997 and decided that was how he wanted to play the game of golf. He was unashamed about copying a player who had only just started his professional career. Scott employed Butch Harmon, who was then Tiger’s coach and set up creating what is widely recognised today as one of the three best swings in golf. If those of a nostalgic bent want to see how Woods played in his first glory period, they need only watch Scott at play.

Scott supplanted Woods at the top of the world rankings and although he has just been dethroned by the rampant Rory McIlroy, his second place looks out of reach for Woods, whose slide down the rankings will soon gather momentum as his five wins last year begin to fall off the tree of points that first devalues and then ignores ageing success. The swing that Scott created from watching Woods and listening to Woods’s coach has kept him injury free, whereas the swing that Woods blended together from the teachings of Hank Haney and Sean Foley has rendered him impotent, in golfing terms at least, in the face of a catalogue of injuries.

For many years, Woods played golf as McIlroy now plays it. He hit the ball miles off the tee, further than anyone else, and was not overly concerned about direction if occasionally he hit it off line. His extraordinary length then gave him a huge advantage on the par fives, which he played better than any other golfer, including the big hitters like Ernie Els, over whom he held powers of intimidation.

Then he won the Open Championship at Hoylake in 2006 when he forsook his driver in favour of greater accuracy off the tee. He won that Open with ease, but the germs of future failure were perhaps planted in his mind. Accuracy off the tee became his golden fleece. His swing was remodelled to achieve this at the expense of length, but the result has been a host of injuries, less accuracy and the frustration of watching the younger brigade hit it miles past him. His great advantage of length disappeared. His peerless short game was now devoted to keeping him from bogeys and worse, rather than separating him from the herd with birdies.

The best golfers in the world fear Woods no more. They have seen how vulnerable he now is under pressure. His rounds are a battle to stay level with par and every professional golfer will tell you that, day in and day out, pars do not cut it except at the U.S. Open. If Woods cares to look in the mirror, he will see an ageing golfer whose best days are behind him. He will also recognise that there are at least five golfers who now consistently finish above him in major championships.

It would be foolish to say that Woods will never win another major, but safe to believe that Nicklaus sleeps soundly these days in the knowledge that his record is safe, from Woods at least.

The pity of the Woods decline is that it has prevented us from seeing him at his best against an emerging McIlroy. We all thought that 2013 would be the year when these two would battle for supremacy. The Northern Irishman, however, found his attention distracted by off-course matters. His game fell away so badly that to see him struggle was like watching a blood sport.

Eventually, McIlroy jettisoned the lovely Caroline Wozniacki just as the altar hoved into view. With thoughts of marriage out of his mind, focus, belief and form returned to the McIlroy game as though a magician had waved away the spell that threatened to devour him.

A year ago, the pundits felt sorry for McIlroy. Now they are tipping him to succeed where Woods has stumbled. Certainly his performances since obtaining his freedom from the gorgeous Dane have been remarkable, but it may be wise to point out that however brilliantly he has played, he has also been remarkably lucky.

McIlroy is probably the best driver of a ball in world golf. He consistently hits it further than anyone else, but even he would admit that he is at his best on soft rather than fiery courses. His victories this year have all come on courses that have received plenty of water. Wentworth is irrigated these days and last weekend at the World Golf Championship, he made his run from well back after a couple of storms reduced the course to his liking. At Birkdale, where he won the Open, he had extraordinary breaks with the weather on every day. He will not always find the conditions at major championships so accommodating.

For all that, McIlroy is now the most watchable golfer in the world. His free flowing, attacking golf makes him a worthy successor to Woods. It is just a shame that events conspired to deprive us of the sight of these two going head to head in the manner of Nicklaus and Tom Watson all those years ago.

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