Archive: The Lost Season Of Tiger Woods

I've taken the liberty of re-printing some of my favorite stories I've written. This one ran in The Journal News in October, 2004, not long after the U.S. lost badly in the Ryder Cup.

By Sam Weinman, The Journal News

On the Saturday morning of the Ryder Cup, under a brilliant late summer sky, Tiger Woods stood on the 10th tee of Oakland Hills Country Club and watched another one of his shots drift off target. This has been a familiar result in 2004. Woods had chosen an iron for more accuracy, and his practice swings looked smooth and efficient. But as soon as his ball left the clubface, his eyes dropped in disgust.

After a remarkable start to his career, Woods endured his first extended slump as a professional in 2004.

Woods pulled his tee from the ground, handed his club back to caddie Steve Williams, then began to swear. It wasn't loud. Anyone who had not been standing near the tee wouldn't have heard it, but those fans in his direct vicinity did. Some gasped. Most just chuckled. Woods continued along muttering, his arms folded across his chest, standing off to the side as his opponents hit their tee shots.

Then he said quietly to himself, "Come on, Tiger."

Four years earlier, at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a TV microphone picked up Woods swearing as his tee shot on the 18th hole sailed into the Pacific Ocean. It was a rare display of frustration during an otherwise triumphant week - Woods won the Open by 15 shots - but the Ryder Cup was different. Woods had played respectably, but not great, losing three of his five matches. After the U.S. was humiliated in its most lopsided Ryder Cup loss ever, he could only stand off to the side on Sunday and stare vacantly as the Europeans celebrated.

Later that evening, after sitting through the closing ceremonies, the entire U.S. team filed into the media center for a press conference. The entire team, that is, except Woods. When the Americans sat down at the long table before the assembled press, Woods' seat in the middle, right next to captain Hal Sutton's, was noticeably empty. Some of the players, along with the press-conference moderator, looked at one another quizzically. Others craned their necks to see if he was just off to the side. A minute or so passed before Woods eventually entered the room, jogging sheepishly to his seat, like a teen-ager trying to sneak into math class before the teacher noticed.

Questions were posed, many having to do with why the seemingly superior American team had fared so badly, and in his home-spun way, Sutton tried to offer an explanation.

"One thing that you learn when you play golf, you have to learn how to lose as well as win," Sutton said. "And when you play the game, unless your name is Tiger Woods, you don't win all the time."

Woods smiled broadly just then. It is a smile literally worth millions - one that sells everything from shoes to video games to SUVs - but one had to wonder if here it wasn't a little bit forced. There was a time not so long ago when Sutton could say something like that and everyone would just nod. But in 2004, Woods has learned plenty about losing. In 17 PGA Tour events, he's won just once. After a ninth-place finish in the American Express Championship in Ireland yesterday, he has now dropped from first to third in the world ranking in the span of less than a month.

The phrase has been invoked often: For anyone else, a season that has brought in some $5 million in earnings is still a heck of a year. Only Woods isn't anyone else.

"I don't like losing, period," he said that night. "It doesn't feel good. Never has."

The spotlight's glare

Even amidst his struggles, Woods maintains his status as golf's resident icon. Phil Mickelson might inspire louder cheers, and both Vijay Singh and Ernie Els may have passed him in the world ranking. But it is Woods who remains a subject of carnival-like fascination. People don't really interact with him as much as they stare at him, study him, wait for him to say or do something remarkable.

And it isn't just that way with fans. A Woods press conference is an event, very often played before a packed house on the Tuesday preceding a major championship. These interview sessions rarely have any flow, with one question often having nothing to do with the next. Woods sits in his chair, sips a bottle of water, and is asked to address everything from the disappointing state of his game, to why he doesn't have a swing coach anymore, to what he thinks of that week's golf course. Every press conference invariably has its share of inane questions as well. At the PGA Championship last year, Woods was asked if he had any stock tips for investors. At this June's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, he was asked how it felt "to be the hottest celebrity in the chic and fashionable Hamptons."

Curiously, these are the questions that elicit some of the best answers from Woods, mostly because he is so caught off guard, he is uncharacteristically spontaneous. ("I'm just a golfer, man," he told the Hamptons questioner. "I chase a little white ball around and work on my farmer tan, that's it.") For the most part, though, Woods isn't one to say anything terribly profound. Not because he's not intelligent or because he doesn't have a sense of humor, but perhaps because he feels he has been burned in the press in the past.

When he was 21 and in his first full season as a professional, Woods was quoted telling dirty jokes in a national magazine - a relatively harmless transgression, but one that was still a departure from his all-American image. Several years later, in the days leading up to the 2002 British Open, he was asked about the brewing controversy over Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership. When he offered an indifferent response, the multicultural star, the one who was supposed to bring golf to the masses, was summarily roasted.

The Hal Sutton pairing of Woods and Phil Mickelson has lived on as one of the all-time captain's mistakes in Ryder Cup history.

 

Since then, Woods has been more measured with his responses, and seemingly, also more prepared. By the time the 2003 Masters rolled around, and the Augusta National controversy had already dominated the headlines for months, Woods had perfected his answer about the issue - that yes, he wished the club admitted female members, but no, he didn't think his opinion meant much.

Last month at the Ryder Cup, in the wake of a Boston Herald report that said he and fiancee Elin Nordegren were breaking off their engagement, Woods was asked if the rumor was true.

"No, that's completely false," Woods said. (Some reports now have the two getting married as early as this week in the Caribbean). "It's 100 percent false, actually. It's amazing how the media can quote false things like that and not be held accountable for something like that, which I think is just incredible."

The answer was convincing, as if, perhaps, he had known exactly what he wanted to say all along.

Consistently inconsistent

Woods will turn 29 at the end of December. When he wears his Nike hat, which he almost always wears at the golf course, he looks younger than that. When he is hatless and he reveals his receding hairline, he could pass for someone in his mid-30s. Still, Woods is an impressive specimen. His shoulders are wide. His waistline is impossibly small. When he first turned pro, he was said to have a weakness for fast food. Judging by his appearance these days, it's safe to assume he no longer does.

At Oakland Hills, while playing alongside Chris Riley, Woods found a fairway bunker off the tee on the eighth hole. A throng of people clustered behind the ropes near his ball, waiting for him to approach. Nordegren walked by, then Michael Jordan, Woods' close friend who had been a fixture in his gallery all week. Then finally Woods and his caddie, Williams, appeared, and two women up front in the gallery were awestruck.

"You're hot, Tiger," one said while Woods wasn't yet within earshot.

"Say it again," the friend said as Woods drew nearer. The first woman declined.

In the bunker, Woods studied his shot. The ball was dangerously close to the lip, but Woods figured he could get it in the air quickly, and he did. The ball flew high and straight and appeared to be tracking toward the flag. Before he could even see it land, Woods pumped his fist several times, then bumped his with Williams'. The crowd erupted.

Up at the green, though, with only 5 feet left for birdie, Woods missed the putt, and he and Riley halved the hole.

Frustration for Woods is not unlike frustration for a lot of golfers. He'll hit good shots - or in his case, otherworldly shots - followed by disappointing ones. If there were never any evidence that he is the most talented player in golf, as with the shot out of the bunker, perhaps his lackluster play this year would be more palatable. But because the old Tiger Woods is often interwoven with the new - because, as he likes to put it, he "is close" - his play in 2004 has been that much more perplexing.

"Usually, I take refuge inside the ropes when I'm playing. But it hasn't been easy," Woods told reporters two days after the Ryder Cup. "What's been most disappointing is that I've had so many chances to win, and I haven't been able to do it. One week it's driving, one week it's iron play, one week I don't putt well. And then guys have just flat-out outplayed me."

A loss for words

Other players seem to gravitate toward Woods, as if he were the coolest kid in class - which, in a way, he is. At the Ryder Cup opening ceremonies, when Sutton announced the famously ill-fated pairing of Mickelson and Woods, the two men walked forward together to greet their opponents. Mickelson threw his arm around Woods. Woods offered little more than a faint smile.

Two days later, when Woods was paired with the excitable Riley, Riley was constantly in Woods' ear between shots, making small talk, cracking jokes - like a court jester there to please the king.

It's not that Woods is above consorting with other players. In fact, most players who know him well insist he is far more likable than the public will ever know. But at the same time, he is Tiger Woods and they're not.

After the U.S. had fallen behind by five points at the end of the first day of the Ryder Cup, word spread through Oakland Hills that Woods had addressed the team in a meeting Friday night. He didn't say much - "He said, 'Let's get it done,' " teammate Chris DiMarco relayed - but given the source, one wondered if the words might have some sort of impact.

They didn't. Outside of a brief run on Saturday morning, the Ryder Cup was never competitive. And by Sunday evening, after showing up late to the team press conference, Woods couldn't produce much in the way of an explanation.

"They just got the job done," he said. "I don't know why. If I knew the reason, obviously, we would be doing something similar to it, if not a little bit better than that."

Within minutes the press conference was over, and the players trickled outside into the gloaming. Some stuck around to talk for a few more minutes. But Woods kept walking, heading purposefully across the parking lot and toward the clubhouse, never breaking stride.

Within days he would be in New York hawking his new video game. A few weeks later, he would be back competing in another tournament.

But now, in the fading light of another disappointing Sunday, it was as if golf's favorite spectacle wanted only to disappear from sight. And as quickly as possible.