Tiger Woods: Facing Demons in Abu Dhabi

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2012

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 28:  Tiger Woods of the USA in action during the third round of Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on January 28, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

No disrespect to arguably the greatest golfer of all time, but Woods’ game is still fickle, still a work in progress and still a puzzle with crucial pieces missing. 

Woods has displayed impressive command over his first 54 holes at the Abu Dhabi Championship, posting just a pair of bogeys in his ascent to a share of the lead at 11-under-par. Yet even with his name atop the leaderboard, where it looks as common as the dimples on a golf ball, his game does not yet resemble the synchronized and sound formula that earned him 14 major championships and worldwide acclaim.

Like any athlete working to regain his rhythm after a traumatic series of events, there are glaring holes in his game—the kind of problems that he may be able to conceal over 18 holes, but which may explode mid-round under the pressure of Sunday's competition. 

Betting on Tiger Woods hitting a fairway with his driver is like saying Kobe Bryant will take less than 20 shots a game. Let’s face it, Woods has never been known for his accuracy off the tee, but rather his all-or-nothing grippin' it and rippin' it.  Driving it in the fairway is as important for a golfer as it is for a pitcher throwing a first-pitch strike. If you don’t hit the fairway, you're behind in the count. And Tiger finds himself in that spot these days.

Woods may have more experience than anyone else in tomorrow’s field at closing out tournaments, but he’ll need to contain his drives if he hopes to kick off his 2012 campaign with a “W.”

His real Achilles heel, though, is rooted in the greens. On day 1 (70) of the Abu Dhabi Championship, Woods needed all of 34 putts in the round, day 2 (69) he had 28 putts and then 30 the next round (66). While the descending scores may be promising, that fluctuation in total putts does not bode well for his confidence with the flat stick, especially for a perfectionist like Woods.

Realistically, though, Tiger’s putting has been the most debilitating part of his game since 2009 when he lost the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang.  Granted, that was the only time Woods has failed to convert a 54-hole lead in a major championship, winning 14 times from that position.  But there were pivotal putts that Woods missed in that final round against Yang that in the past would have dropped with the regularity of the rising sun; just think back to 2008 at the US Open at Torrey Pines where even on one leg, Woods’ putter was what sealed the deal.

But since Yang beat Woods in 2009, like David knocking down the Goliath of golf, Woods has only contended in majors, unable to capture the glory, most memorably coming up just short at the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 and the last two Masters.

Most recently, Woods reentered the winner’s circle at the Chevron World Challenge, closing in classic Tiger fashion with back-to-back birdies over an unsurprised, and humble, competitor in Zach Johnson.

Sunday in Abu Dhabi, however, will be completely different.

He’s used to the crowds and the cameras, the buzz and the boisterousness, but there will be momentous weight on his shoulders because winning represents rebuilding his broken image as the world’s best golfer, rather than bolstering his distinguished place in history. 

Not to mention, he will also have the young and voracious Rory McIlroy chasing him from just two strokes behind. McIlroy won’t just be looking to snatch the victory from Woods, but all of the hype and momentum that comes with usurping a living legend. With the No. 3 world ranking and a major victory under his belt—mind you he's just 23-years-old—he may be well on his way to becoming the new face of golf worldwide.

Still, as golf guru Stephanie Wei explained,

“If Woods returns to something approaching his best form—many will argue he already has, and tomorrow he has an opportunity to claim a second victory in as many starts—it would surely, given the magnitude of his recent humiliations, merit consideration alongside the sport’s grandest human triumphs: a comeback worthy of Hogan’s determination, if not his asceticism and fidelity.”

Perhaps, tomorrow we will learn whether or not the man that once exuded terrifying intimidation among his competitors has returned or if the future will be series of glimpses of the golfer that was.