It wasn’t necessarily surprising to see Tiger Woods play badly at the Hero World Challenge on Thursday, where he made his return to competitive golf after a four-month break.
The way in which he played badly — chunking one, two, three, and finally four simple chip shots around the greens over 18 holes — was shocking.
The tournament is being held at Isleworth Tiger’s old home course where he has played hundreds of non-competitive rounds. Tiger used to destroy that course. On Thursday, as Tiger slumped to a five-over 77, his old swing coach Hank Haney tweeted that he never saw Tiger shoot over par at Isleworth. In his prime, Tiger was reportedly a +10 handicap at the course, meaning he averaged a 62.
Earlier in the week, Tiger shot a two-under and drew rave reviews from people around the game.
“I played a practice round with him on Monday, and he flushed it,” Jason Day told ESPN. “His short game was on point.”
Golf Digest’s David Shedloski described the practice round this way:
In good spirits and clearly in good health, Woods traversed Isleworth Golf & Country Club in a breezy 2-under-par 70 that was notable for how easy he made it look at times. He strayed from four fairways and just two greens and never once did he produce a big miss.
And then Thursday rolled around and Tiger shot a 77 — seven shots worse than he shot a day earlier, and 15 shots worse than his average round during his peak.
So what is up with him?
Robert Lusetich, a respected golf writer who wrote a book about Tiger, floated a theory in a column for Fox Sports. He says Tiger’s struggles in competitive rounds are all mental.
“What ails Woods lurks between his ears,” he wrote.
Jason Day played with Woods earlier in the week and walked away impressed. “He was flushing it,” the young Australian said.
But that was practice.
Then the bell rang. And that’s where his troubles started — and, in truth, that’s where they have started for a long time, dating back to Hank Haney’s days. That’s where the apprehension — the stage fright — takes over.
Cameron Morfit of Golf.com nicely summed up the strangeness of watching Tiger Woods get the “chip yips:”
Did he have vertigo? Had an optometrist botched his prescription? Watching Woods mangle all these chip shots was like watching Bobby Flay burn all the grilled cheese sandwiches.
The worry is that Tiger can’t do what he does in practice when it really counts. It’s a lesser version of those old stories about Shaquille O’Neal making dozens of free throws in a row in practice, and then bricking shot after shot in games.
The swing, equipment, injuries, all important to Tiger’s future, but he wins majors with his mental game. Does he still have the nerves?
— Farrell Evans (@EvansESPN) December 4, 2014
The two most popular explanations for Tiger’s struggles over the last six years are, 1) injuries, 2) swing problems. Those two things go hand-in-hand to some extent. He changed his swing, many believe, because of his injuries. But he can’t perfect his swing because his keeps getting injured.
The “stage fright” theory is harder to prove. You can’t get out the telestrator and illustrate how Tiger clams up in competitive rounds the way you can illustrate a technical issue with his swing. But given how poorly he has played over the last 12 months, and the bizarre nature of his performance on Thursday, all possible theories are on the table.
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