Atlas Shrugged. Superman got his cape caught in the phone-booth door. Mighty Casey struck out. And Tiger Woods failed to win yet again, this time at the Buick Invitational, which was won on Sunday by Phil Mickelson. What's next? The end of death and taxes?
Clearly, all's not right in the world—the world of golf, that is. Woods hasn't won a PGA Tour event since September, having gone seven starts without a victory, his longest drought in two years. Before the Buick there was some loose talk about a slump, which at the time seemed ludicrous, but after Woods's fourth-place finish at San Diego's Torrey Pines Golf Course on Sunday, this notion must be taken more seriously. It should now be considered merely silly.
You want a slump? Take a peek at Ben Crenshaw's record. Since the start of the 1998 season he has made the cut in three of 43 tournaments. That is a slump. Woods isn't within two zip codes of a slump. In his last seven tournaments he has had five top fives and finished no worse than 13th. For most players, this would be a career year. Moreover, to disparage Woods's recent play is to devalue all that came before it. Golf simply isn't as easy as he made it look. "People are calling for his head, but they don't know what the hell they're talking about," says Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, who played with Woods during the first two rounds in San Diego. "The guy is playing excellent golf. He doesn't win a couple of tournaments and it's like he has committed a crime. Don't be so hard on him."
Point taken, but Woods clearly isn't playing at the otherworldly level he reached last year. His troubles, such as they are, began last fall. When he ended his record 2000 season with three straight missed opportunities for victory—third at the Disney National Car Rental Golf Classic in Orlando, second at the Tour Championship in Atlanta and tied for fifth in the American Express Championship at Valderrama—it was easy to excuse. He was tired. There was nothing left to play for. Can't win 'em all. Then 2001 rolled around, and things began to get squirrely.
Woods showed up at the Mercedes Championships, the second week of January in Maui, with his edge dulled by a month of scuba diving, blackjack and an ill-advised experiment with peroxide. The only thing worse than his ball striking in that tournament was his putting. He finished tied for eighth, six strokes behind the winner. He played so poorly that this most meticulous, methodical of 25-year-olds broke from his usual schedule and added a trip to the Phoenix Open two weeks later, which offered him a chance to work out a few kinks. Instead, he counted 14 lip-outs over the first two days and a 73 on Friday that snapped his Tour record of 52 consecutive rounds at par or better. Woods finished 15 strokes back of the winner, in a tie for fifth.
Next up was the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where the going would get more hazardous. On the eve of the tournament Woods collided with a Sharpie-wielding member of the autograph stalkerazzi and wrenched his left knee. Favoring the leg, he finished 13th at Pebble, his worst showing since last July's Western Open.
From Pebble, Woods limped into San Diego. The whispering had started in Phoenix, mostly in jest, but by the time the Buick rolled around, the Slump had become a bona fide news story, in part because the symmetry was so obvious. Last year Woods came to the Buick having won six starts in a row, a streak surpassed only once in golf history. This time he rolled into town having "lost" his last six tournaments. "It's not a slump," Woods said the day before play began, waving off a swarm of reporters as if they were so many mosquitoes buzzing around his head. "If I can go [six] tournaments without a victory and people call it a slump, then it must mean I've played some pretty good golf."
If Woods faces impossible expectations this season, it's his own doing. He has wowed the world so unfailingly over the past two years that there was no reason to believe he wouldn't blow away the field last Thursday, just to prove a point. Instead he laid an egg, shooting a 70 that featured a chunked chip on the 6th hole, which led to a double bogey, and a ghastly 34 putts for the round. His shoddy work with his putter has been all too familiar in 2001. Last year Woods ranked second in putts per green in regulation; his 1.717 average was the fourth lowest since the Tour went to a per-hole scoring system in 1986. As Woods headed into the Buick, his putting average this year ranked 129th.
"The last two years he putted better than anybody has ever putted, even on a computer game," says two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen, Woods's friend and neighbor in Orlando. "If he putts like a mere mortal, he lets the rest of us back into the ball game." With typical stubbornness, Woods has maintained that he has been hitting good putts that simply haven't found the hole.
During the second round of the Buick, Woods finally began to find his touch on the bouncy poa annua greens, taking only 26 putts. So, this being golf, his long game deserted him. The guy who set a Tour record last year by reaching 75.2% of greens in regulation hit only 61.1% on Friday. Early on, his swing was so loose—he was level par through eight holes—that Torrey Pines was atwitter with the possibility that Woods would miss a cut for the second time in his pro career. He scrambled for a back-nine 32 that gave him a round of 67 and brought him home five shots under the cut, but The San Diego Union-Tribune couldn't let go of the tantalizing story. Headline in Saturday's paper: WOODS RECOVERS TO AVOID MISSING THE CUT. Idling in 19th place, five back of coleaders Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, Woods said, with typical understatement, "I left a lot of shots out there."