Teflon Tiger

He’s plunged in the rankings, but Woods is still the undisputed fan favourite

Teflon Tiger

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Teflon Tiger
Darren Carroll/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, hoping to catch a glimpse of “the old Tiger” Woods, fans descended on Bay Hill, the famous golf course in Orlando, Fla., for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Whenever Woods set up on the practice green or the driving range, it seemed everyone from preschoolers to guys who looked like they could have been around in the 1920s when Bobby Jones was the golfer to beat stood wide-eyed and still. Even when he was 10 strokes off the lead going into the final round, thousands of fans, many in their Sunday best—a red golf shirt, Tiger’s trademark—lined the edges of the fairways, eight rows deep in some spots. They all seemed to be clinging to the prospect that here, at a tournament Woods had won six times, he might finally put an end to his 16-month drought.

There were certainly flashes of greatness—a miraculous iron shot over trees from deep in the rough on the ninth hole; a 55-foot birdie putt on 18—but those looking for vintage Tiger came away disappointed. Instead, they saw the same inconsistent golfer who hasn’t taken home a title since the trashing of his Cadillac Escalade in November 2009. The fender bender that would lead to the shattering of Woods’s squeaky clean image, and the stranger-than-fiction scandal that included everything from porn stars to a Perkins waitress, and six weeks in sex rehab. Woods posted a never-in-contention -1 at Bay Hill, finishing in a tie for 24th. And his final tune-up for this week’s Master’s only fuelled the critics, who question if the 35-year-old, who has slipped to No. 7 in the world, will ever dominate golf again.

Rory McIlroy, currently ranked ninth, is the only pro brave enough to put on paper what many on tour are probably thinking. In a guest column for Sports Illustrated, he suggested that Woods has lost his fear factor: “I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did?.?.?.?He’s playing like an ordinary golfer.” McIlroy took some heat from fellow pros, but the 21-year-old Irishman may have a point. Woods’s 2011 statistics rank him 57th in greens in regulation, 67th in driving distance, 107th in putting and 191th in driving accuracy. Now, he’s just one of the guys on tour.

The big problem for Woods is his swing, which is currently undergoing a total overhaul—the fourth such retooling in his career—under the watchful eye of Burlington, Ont.-born Sean Foley. (Ironically, Woods just released Tiger Woods: My Swing, a $9.99 iPhone App for those who want to play like him.) When Maclean’s caught up with Foley on the driving range at Bay Hill, he scoffed at the notion of there being an old Tiger and a new Tiger—”He’s Tiger”—and described the last 16 months as a “hiccup” in a long career. “Jack Nicklaus had a stretch of 17 months, Wayne Gretzky played poorly for a long time, so did Michael Jordan,” he says. “How can you be bulletproof for so long when you’re a human being? And then life gets in the way.” In Woods’s case, a big part of “life” is the public spectacle of his $110-million divorce from Elin Nordegren.

So what specifically are Foley and his prized pupil working on? “The whole geometry and how the body is rotating and the path and the arc that the club is on,” says the 36-year-old coach. “Basically, I’m trying to get the alignments at impact better than they were. The club is so stuck behind him we need to get it back in front of the body. It’s a different pattern for him, so it takes time.”

Foley, Woods’s coach since last August, isn’t setting any time frame, but describes Woods’s recent practice sessions as “fantastic.” Increasingly, he says, “I see more smiles and I see the swagger coming back.” While Foley describes the changes to his technique as “basically neuroscience,” Woods breaks down what needs to be done in simpler terms: “More reps, more competitive rounds, and making a few putts at the right time and next thing you know, I’ll be right there.”

But will he ever strike fear in the hearts of opponents again? “Eventually,” says Foley, “his game will do the same thing to people that it has in the past.” Other pros tend to agree. When asked by Maclean’s if Woods has any chance of returning to his old form, Rocco Mediate, a 25-year PGA veteran, was emphatic. “He’ll be back,” says Mediate, after wrapping up his final round at Bay Hill. “If he finds his golf swing again, he’ll be just as dominant as he was before, absolutely.”

But even if Woods perfects the swing, improves his putting, and somehow finds a way to leave all the personal baggage in the locker room, a return to the top isn’t guaranteed. Standing next to him, it’s impossible to ignore he has the body, especially the shoulders, of a power-hitting third baseman. But Woods has suffered his share of injuries—his left knee has gone under the knife four times—and no matter how fit, the more miles an athlete puts on his body, the harder it is to bounce back. “Your body doesn’t recover at 35 like it did at 18,” says Sergio Garcia, a 12-year veteran. “It’s just the way it is.”

In some ways, Woods’s past success is also going to impede his return to dominance. Back when he was winning events by double digits, he was the freak of nature touring with guys who didn’t make it to the gym every day, or at all. Today, 14 years since the 21-year-old blew everyone away by a record 12 strokes to win his first green jacket at Augusta, Woods is frequently being outgunned by younger stars, guys who played other sports in college before focusing on golf, and who are as devoted to the weights as he is. In the first two rounds at Bay Hill, for instance, Woods was matched up with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland, a pair of 26-year-old long-ballers. Woods joked before the tournament began that he’d be the “Corey Pavin” of the group, a reference to the skinny American whose 251-yard average drive currently ranks him 194th in the PGA. Sure enough, Woods was outdriven consistently by both Johnson and Woodland by 30 yards.

But keeping up with the heavy hitters may not be the greatest obstacle. “It’s a lot easier to lose your intensity,” says Stewart Cink, the 38-year-old six-time PGA tour winner. “If you’re in 40th place on Saturday, when you’re younger out here, it’s easy to stay really intense and grind it away. But the older you get, it’s a little harder unless you’re right up near the top. I think Tiger may say the same thing.”

Teflon Tiger

History isn’t exactly on his side. The list of legends who never won another major after turning 35 is an illustrious one, and includes Arnold Palmer, Fred Couples and Seve Ballesteros. Greg Norman and Lee Trevino only won one more each after their 35th birthday. And Woods still needs five to top Nicklaus’s record of 18. “It’s definitely safer than it was,” says Garcia. “Before everything that happened, I thought Jack’s record was going to be beaten easily. He’ll still have a chance, but it’s not the same.”

When Woods towered over the rest of the field not so long ago, much was made of his prickliness with fans and fellow players. In Orlando, he was as gracious with the media and autograph seekers as any of the other pros—though he was the only one who needed a seven-member security detail when meeting and greeting fans. The only time he got the slightest bit testy was when a reporter asked if he has a hard time keeping his mind on golf with so many off-the-course distractions. “Not hard to focus at all,” snapped Woods. Most of the media at golf tournaments, of course, are there to talk shop: “Are you still fully comfortable with the putting stance?” Or, “Was the wind an issue?” Less likely to come up in post-round scrums are questions about his new girlfriend, the 22-year-old stepdaughter of an executive at the agency that represents Woods, his new $50-million bachelor pad in Jupiter Island, Fla., or the fact he’s put his 155-ft. yacht, Privacy, on the market for $25 million.

On the course, aside from throwing his driver in disgust after one errant tee shot, he was a gentler Tiger. His toothy grin was often visible from 40 yards away. “It’s funny to see him smile so much,” said one paying customer. And Woods regularly kidded around with the fellow pros—he playfully flicked a bug at Pat Perez during the ?nal round. When he laughed out loud on the 10th fairway alongside Woodland and Johnson, one fan turned to another, saying, “The old Tiger would never be doing that.”

Whether all the focus on reviving the brand is hurting his game is impossible to know—but there’s no question a charm offensive is in full effect. At one point, between holes No. 12 and 13, Woods flipped his golf ball to a kid, no older than six. The boy’s eyes pretty much bulged out of his head when he looked down and found Tiger’s Nike 1 ball in his palm. It was a made-for-TV moment in every sense, right down to the fact the young fan was wearing a championship-Sunday-red golf shirt and a Nike hat.

Still, even diehard golf fans have a hard time staying out of the rough when it comes to Woods. Overheard more than once, amid his followers at Bay Hill, was some variation of, “Did you hear the one about Tiger and the porn star?” Those on the clock couldn’t help themselves, either. “Ladies,” one tournament volunteer announced to a group of grey-haired women near the first tee, “Tiger’s not taking any phone numbers today.”

While they joke, the moral outrage among sports fans, at least, now seems short-lived. He’s reviled by almost everyone for what he did to his family, but Woods isn’t the first athlete to sleep with a lot of women. Many fans just want him to start winning again. A recent Golf Digest/ESPN survey found that 32.3 per cent want Woods to capture another green jacket—it would be his fifth—at Augusta this weekend. Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson were a distant second (13.2 per cent) and third (10.5 per cent). And 60 per cent want Woods to break Nicklaus’s record of six Masters titles, up from 47 per cent last year (73 per cent said yes in 2009, pre-scandal).

His competition wants him back in contention too, since the spotlight on the game isn’t anywhere near as bright without him. “Television drives the bus,” says Cink. “I don’t care if he’s No. 1 or No. 20 in the world, he’s still going to be the biggest TV guy.” Ratings for the 2010 Chevron World Challenge last December, in which Woods lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, were up 170 per cent from the year before, when Woods backed out due to “injuries sustained in a one-car accident.” There are plenty of other fan favourites—Mickelson, Mediate, Garcia—and exciting young players—Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and current world No. 1 Martin Kaymer—but nobody comes close to matching the fascination with Woods. (Last November, within three hours of his first tweet, 40,000 people signed up to follow him on Twitter).

Still, at what point, if the losing streak continues, will it start taking a toll? When it comes to endorsements, Robert Kozinets, the chair of the marketing department at York University’s Schulich School of Business, expects the smart money to stick with Woods for some time. “The only thing more exciting than a born winner is a fall from grace followed by eventual triumph,” says Kozinets. A prolonged slump makes it tougher to land new sponsors, perhaps, but Kozinets contends that “as long as not winning is interesting—and violates expectations and even logic—then it will be marketable. But eventually, for sure, without wins it will get boring.”

At Bay Hill, nothing lit up Woods’s eyes more than questions about Augusta National. “Golf course fits my game,” he says. “I see the shot and more than anything, it’s understanding where to miss the golf ball, and I feel very comfortable there.” The confidence may seem a bit surprising from a guy whose best finish in 2011 is 10th, until you consider that Woods made his post-scandal return at the Masters last year, and finished fourth even though he hadn’t touched his clubs in five months.

Heading into the year’s first major, his drought is more than 500 days—73 rounds of competitive golf. And yet, Woods still walks the course like a champion, shoulders back, eyes forward, as if always focused on the target, and arms rocking confidently at his side. And his disciples treat him like one, surging ahead en masse as soon as he makes contact, forcing tournament marshals to repeatedly remind the gallery, with little success, to wait for Woods’s playing partner to take his cut. All the multitude wants, it seems, is to be in position in case the old Tiger suddenly shows up.