Friday, June 4, 2004

Tiger not the buzz at Memorial

Paul Daugherty

DUBLIN, Ohio - The rumor, never confirmed, was that Paul Azinger had paid a caddie $100 to eat a cicada. "Hey, Bruce," Memorial marshal Frank Comfort whispered into his walkie-talkie. "Who was the caddie that ate the cicada?"

Bruce didn't know.

"That's sick," someone suggested to Frank Comfort.

"No," Frank said. "It's chicken."

And so it went at the Memorial Thursday. The one year they get decent weather, it rains bugs.

You think golf is a walk in the park? Well, yeah, OK, it pretty much is. But try hitting a little white ball with a big brown bug dancing on your neck. Golf is a civilized sport. You can't be having a cicada posse buzzing you all day and expect to do anything but hack. Joey Sindelar practically disrobed on the 4th tee Thursday trying to free a cicada that had crawled down his back. It couldn't be more nerve-wracking if this were Sunday at the Open and the cicadas were the winged monkeys from Oz.

Because they have only a passing knowledge of golf etiquette, two cicadas dive-bombed Tiger Woods as he steadied for an 8-foot birdie putt on the 8th green. Woods backed off twice, then missed the putt. Woods has said he has spent this year working the bugs out of his game. This wasn't what he meant.

He shot 72 Thursday. Even par, nothing special. Which is fitting these days for the man Azinger called "the most dominant athlete in sports" after Woods beat him here in 2001. That was Tiger's third consecutive Memorial title. Woods beat Azinger and Sergio Garcia by seven shots, and Vijay Singh by nine. We guessed he'd never lose again.

That was then. This is now:

A birdie at No. 5 was followed by a bogey at No. 6, thanks to a fat shot from a fairway bunker that landed in the middle of a pond. Then came momentum-building birdies at 14 and 15, and a terrific up-and-down from the sand at 16; and a momentum-killing bogey at 17, where Woods fluffed a simple pitch from greenside rough.

It was a hang-in-there round for Woods, one of many we've seen lately. Afterward, Woods declined to be interviewed, opting for the practice range.

We have theories for Tiger's decline, or whatever you choose to call it. He ditched his coach, he got engaged, he has broadened his world to include a life outside the gallery ropes. Which, as we real-worlders know, can be rough. Woods couldn't hit a fairway as wide as Idaho more than half the time.

Maybe it's not that deep. Maybe it's as simple as redefining what we expect from the world's top-ranked player (still, somehow.) It could be time to re-frame the Tiger Question, from "When will Tiger Woods be seen as the greatest golfer ever?" to, "Will he ever be the greatest?"

Instead of dominating and intimidating, Woods is hanging in there. What a scrapper he is.

For the moment, he looks like an aging pitcher who has lost something off his fastball. He's getting by on smarts, courage and the outside corner. He's still mentally stout. He's still a great putter, third best on the PGA Tour. But he doesn't have that sixth gear anymore.

On Thursday, every part of Woods' game was a little off. He hit nine of 14 fairways, better than the 56 percent he's hit this year (161st on the PGA Tour). But Woods hit only 10 greens in regulation. He made some gritty par-saving putts. He also left a five-foot par putt on the lip of the cup at No. 12.

Woods didn't hit many that were sigh-out-loud lousy. Nor any that were remarkable. Problem is, we'd become accustomed to remarkable. Perhaps we should scale that back. See Tiger as scrambler. Tiger as "gutty competitor." Tiger as Jeff Sluman.

"I can see the steady progress," Woods had said Wednesday. That wasn't the buzz at the Memorial, though. The buzz was strictly in the trees.


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