As Tiger Woods has slashed and hacked his way through this year's PGA Tour schedule, he's heard more and more of the dreaded s-word: slump. By his own impossibly high standards Woods has been slumping since 2000, when at age 24 he won nine tournaments, including three majors, in what is widely considered to be the greatest season in golf history. He is still ranked No. 1 in the world, as he has been for each of the past 253 weeks, and he's third on the money list. The notion of his being in a slump is so preposterous that it has obscured an unavoidable truth: He really is in a slump, and it's getting worse by the week.
Once an overwhelming combination of power and precision, Woods has sunk to 159th in driving accuracy and 68th in greens in regulation. He hasn't won a stroke play tournament all year. While making what he calls "minor adjustments" to his swing, Woods has basically been reduced to slapping the ball around and eking out a number with guts and a spectacular short game. He has, in other words, turned into a flashier version of Brad Faxon.
There was a time when all Woods had to do was put his name on the leader board and everybody else's collar got tight: Coming into this year he had converted 18 consecutive 36-hole leads into victories. But in each of the past two weeks he's blown Friday-evening leads. This isn't exactly ideal preparation for next month's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, which is suddenly being spoken of as one of the most important tournaments Woods will ever play. The Open will mark the two-year anniversary of his last win in a major championship. Not coincidentally, the summer of 2002 was when Woods parted ways with Butch Harmon, his celebrated swing instructor. As Woods's struggles have intensified, the Greek chorus has called for him to swallow his considerable pride and go back to "Butchie," who fussed over his client's every twitch as Woods won eight professional majors and three U.S. Amateurs. But Harmon's brother, Bill, has observed that Butch and Tiger are trying to "outstubborn" each other, leaving no end in sight to their stalemate.
Over the last couple of years, Woods has increasingly relied on his friend Mark O'Meara for input, with help from O'Meara's instructor Hank Haney. Woods and Haney have both played down their relationship, but the week before the Masters they worked together on the range at Woods's home course in Orlando. Last week Haney walked a practice round with Woods and O'Meara, and afterward a tight-lipped Woods allowed that he had asked for Haney's counsel on his takeaway.
O'Meara and Haney have very different ideas from Harmon on how to swing the club, and it has become clear that Woods has failed to synthesize these clashing ideologies. His deteriorating technique is most apparent in his driving. In his last two tournaments Woods has hit just 42% of his fairways. If his driving is that wild at Shinnecock Hills, which presents one of the most exacting tests in championship golf, Woods can forget about keeping his streak of making 123 consecutive cuts alive, let alone winning. He'll be lucky to break 80.
Woods has relentlessly worked on his game since he was in diapers, and he will continue to chase his old form, even as it seems increasingly unattainable. Says O'Meara, "The way he looks at it, you're either getting better or getting worse. And if you're getting worse, you've gotta figure out a way to get it going in the other direction." Woods expressed a rare vulnerability last week when talking about trying to trust his swing changes. "You can hit things on the range," he said, "but when you've got water left, water right, bunkers, the wind is blowing, you've got to hit the ball into a tight spot, yeah, it makes it a little more stressful." The one good thing about Woods being repeatedly beaten up by the game is that this most imperious of competitors has never seemed more human.