PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Imagine how different it might have been for Tiger Woods if not for one perfect shot.
Major championships always have a signature moment. The 20-foot birdie putt by Adam Scott on the 18th hole at Augusta National that led to a green jacket. The pure 4-iron that Justin Rose hit into the 18th at Merion. Phil Mickelson’s 3-wood onto the 17th green at Muirfield. Jason Dufner’s wedge to a dangerous pin on the fifth hole at Oak Hill that stopped a foot from the cup.
The defining moment in another major-less season for Woods was his wedge on the 15th hole in the second round of the Masters.
It hit the pin and shattered his calm.
One inch to the right or to the left and he most likely would have had an easy birdie and the outright lead. Instead, the ball caromed off the green and into the water, setting off a wild chain of events that put Woods into the middle of a controversy that wasn’t his doing except for inadvertently taking the wrong drop.
For two hours, all anyone knew was that Woods was being penalized two shots for the incorrect drop, and thus signed an incorrect scorecard, but he would not be disqualified.
There was outrage, and rightly so. Some of that lingered even after Augusta National offered a reasonable explanation that its decision was based on Rule 33-7, which gives a committee discretion to waive disqualification. In this case, the club said it could have –and should have –talked to Woods before he signed his card.
Can one shot really make that much of a difference?
There’s no way to know how the Masters or the rest of his season would have unfolded. But this much was clear. Those who have spent years around Woods at golf tournaments noticed a sharp change in his outlook in the month leading to the first major of the year.
Woods never looked the same after the Masters, despite winning his next start at The Players Championship.
He did have an elbow injury that kept him out of two tournaments this summer. And it’s impossible to say what’s going on inside someone’s head, especially someone like Woods.
Even so, few other sports rely so heavily on inner calm. Woods talked about that after his two biggest blowouts in majors –his 12-shot win at the Masters and 15-shot win at the U.S. Open.
“There comes a point in time when you feel tranquil, when you feel calm. You feel at ease with yourself. And those weeks, I felt that way,” he said after the 2000 U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach. “I felt very at ease with myself.”
There is nothing wrong with his game, even as it remains subject to intense scrutiny.
Woods has five wins this year, which includes two World Golf Championships and The Players. That’s a career for some players.
But there was something about the majors this year that brought out a different player.
Nick Faldo said before the British Open that Woods was “not in a good mental place.” For some reason, this became news. Jack Nicklaus effectively suggested the same thing during the final round of the PGA Championship. Nicklaus said Woods was swinging the club a week earlier at Firestone “as well as I’ve ever seen him swing it,” and that his swing wasn’t quite the same as he got deeper into the PGA Championship, and further behind on the leaderboard.
“You start losing confidence,” Nicklaus said. “You try to do something you can’t do it and then it frustrates you. We all go through those things.”
Woods hasn’t had a mental coach since he was an amateur, and he doesn’t need one now.
He needs the peace he had in March. And he has to find that himself.