At the apex of his historic career, Tiger Woods was a cold-blooded Sunday assassin with the final-round lead in hand. Clad in red and armed with intimidating talent, the game’s most dominant golfer had the majority of his opponents beaten before stepping onto the first tee, and the rest bested very soon thereafter.
His death stares, clutch putts and unbelievable shot-making shattered challengers’ confidence as major titles mounted and competition floundered.
This past Sunday, however, Zach Johnson reminded everyone that the Tiger of back then is not even close to the Woods we know today.
Not only did Johnson steal the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge out from under the world No. 1 with a stunning back-nine rally, but his playoff victory showed yet again that while Tiger remains elite, the mystique and intimidation that once made him unbeatable when out in front has all but vanished.
Ironically, it was the second time in four years that Woods relinquished a final-round lead to a hard-charging, highly-ranked golfer in his own tournament. In 2010, it was Graeme McDowell who erased a four-shot deficit and bested Woods in another playoff at Sherwood Country Club.
No one is suggesting that Woods won’t be winning significant tournaments, including majors, for many years to come; he absolutely will. The new reality, however, is that he’ll have to earn it down the stretch against opponents that won't wilt in the face of his mere presence.
The new crop of confident PGA Tour stars and established veterans certainly respect Tiger, but they no longer fear him; a significant change from Woods’ glory years that delivered 14 major titles and 79 PGA Tour victories.
"The guy never ceases to amaze me," Johnson said after winning on the first playoff hole Sunday. "So yeah, I'll take pride in the fact that I played against the best, and I got one."
The reality is that Johnson isn't the only golfer to “get one” on Woods in the past several years. Since his return from an ACL injury and the chaos that was his personal life went public, Woods’ aura of invincibility has taken multiple hits, as he’s failed to win a single major despite being in contention multiple times.
To be fair, Tiger has won eight times on the PGA Tour during the past two seasons and remains the most talented golfer in the world. That said, during that same period, the 14-time major winner has struggled with injuries, putting woes and ill-timed rules infractions that have allowed lesser-ranked opponents to get the better of him.
The intimidation erosion dates back to the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Leading by two strokes with 18 holes to play, Tiger was caught from behind by the unknown Y.E. Yang, who never once showed signs of intimidation or awe while playing alongside Woods in the final pairing. The South Korean shot a solid two-under 70, while Woods, the game’s greatest closer, struggled to a 75.
It was the first time Woods had ever lost a major championship when owning at least a share of the lead after 54 holes and one of the few times he’d failed to win an event of any caliber with a Sunday advantage. Since that shocking result, Tiger hasn't won a major title and has suffered multiple weekend disappointments when in position to end that drought.
This past July, Woods had a share of The Open Championship lead with 20 holes left to play but was blown out of the water by Phil Mickelson’s stunning back-nine comeback in the final round at Muirfield.
In 2012, he shared the 36-hole lead in two majors only to struggle over the weekend as younger, less-accomplished golfers eased past him. At the Olympic Club, Webb Simpson outplayed Woods over the final 36 holes to capture the U.S. Open, and two months later, then world No. 1 Rory McIlroy ran away with the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island despite trailing Tiger by two shots after the second round.
While Woods never held a final-round lead in those tournaments, his inability to remain in contention coupled with the strong play of rising, confident stars is further indication that his talent, not his reputation, will have to carry the world No. 1 in the latter part of his career.
That new normal was on full display this past weekend, as Johnson lifted his game just as Woods was clinging to a tenuous lead. After matching Woods’ birdie on the 16th hole to remain a shot down, the world’s 16th-ranked golfer nearly holed his tee shot on the 17th before sinking the tying birdie putt. He then magically made par from the fairway on the 18th hole to force Tiger into a playoff he claimed a hole later.
"Zach, I don't know how the last three iron shots didn't go in the hole," Woods said. "Pretty impressive what he did. He got me."
It’s unlikely those words were ever uttered by Woods during his historic climb to the game’s top spot, and surely, they didn't come easily to him on Sunday. There’s no more competitive and determined golfer on tour than Tiger, and letting opportunities slip isn't something he’s very accustomed to.
Yet, given the loss of his once overwhelming invincibility and mystique, there’s no question Tiger will have to step up his game if he hopes to continue winning significant PGA Tour events and ultimately break through with that elusive 15th major championship.