By Zak Kozuchowski
GolfWRX Managing Editor
There’s a list of things that scare Tiger Woods, and despite what Greg Norman told FoxSports.com on Tuesday, being intimidated by Rory McIlroy is not one of them.
As McIlroy said in his press conference before the Tour Championship, “How could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him?”
McIlroy is the most gifted golfer on the planet not named Tiger Woods. McIlroy is also extremely hot right now — he’s won three of the last four tournaments he’s played, including an 8-shot shellacking of the field at the PGA Championship.
But Woods has 74 PGA Tour victories, a list that includes 14 majors and 16 World Golf Championships. He also spent 623 ranked as the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings, dealing with injuries and swing changes the whole way. While Woods fell to as low as No. 58 in the world in August 2011, he climbed back to No. 2 in less than a year. Doesn’t sound like a player who is intimidated, does it?
Despite what we once thought, Woods is not bulletproof. Off the golf course, he has undergone a life changing scandal that resulted in divorce, public mockery and a new level of criticism for golf analysts. These scars alone were a more formidable opponent than any of his competitors.
Yet Tiger has battled back from his self-inflicted hell, winning three times in 2012 and showing flashes of the old brilliance along the way. While the road toward Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship wins should seem easier now than it did a year ago, Woods still has real threats to fear in the future.
Woods joked that he might be scared of McIlroy’s hair, but here are three things that actually scare Woods — much more than McIlroy and his youthful locks.
Woods shocked no one when he said in his press conference before the Tour Championship that he’s never been intimidated by another golfer.
“No one the size of Ray Lewis is going to hit me coming over the middle, so this is a different kind of sport,” Woods said. “It’s not like you go over the middle and some guy is 255 pounds and going to take your block off. This is about execution and going about your own business and see where it ends up at the end of the day.”
Woods has always said that he only enters tournaments when he thinks he can win. Like all of golf’s greats, he usually wins tournaments when he plays his best. But even though Woods is a golfer, his injuries are more similar to those of a football player. He’s had four surgeries on his left knee, becoming more fragile with each operation. He’s also sustained injuries to the muscles in his lower legs, back and neck. This makes it rare to see Woods play a tournament without limping or grimacing, meaning Woods has an equal chance of winning as he does withdrawing from events.
Many wealthy people buy new cars because they get tired of driving their old ones. Woods has changed his golf swing three times in his career under the tutelage of thee different instructors, giving the impression that he gets tired of winning with his old swing.
Woods’ most recent swing change under Sean Foley has been his most radical, drawing scathing criticism from analysts such as Brandel Chamblee, Johnny Miller, Peter Alliss and many others. Woods has said that his new swing is helping him drive it further and straighter and his statistics agree — he’s ranked 34th in driving distance in 2012, up from 71st in 2011, and 45th in driving accuracy, up from 186th last year. He’s also 8th in ball striking this year, up from 186th in 2011.
But Woods turns 37 in December, and because of his questionable health he needs to give himself as many chances as possible to win major championships. Even if the swing change under Foley is incorrect and it limits him to hitting mostly cut shots, another swing change would further delay his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record. For this reason, Woods would be better off dealing with a one-dimensional swing and hoping for a hot putter than to go back to the drawing board with another swing coach.
Speaking of his putter, Woods isn’t putting like he used to. And if Woods has lost his nerve, he’s also lost his dominance. We’ll likely know the answer to that question when Woods faces a putt to win a major championship. Until then, Woods needs to find a way to hole more putts — whether that means working on his mechanics or his patience is a decision only he can make.
In the last two FedExCup events that McIlroy has won, McIlroy has shot a combined 40-under and Woods has shot 35-under. Any professional golfer can say that they would have won a tournament if not for a few missed putts, but when Woods says that it means something — he’s easily the greatest clutch putter of all time.
McIlroy was asked at the Tour Championship press conference if he was intimidated by Tiger. He answered that intimidated wasn’t the right word.
” [I was] More just in awe of what he’s done, of his accomplishments, of his achievements, but never intimidated,” McIlroy said.
If Woods starts putting like he used to, however, McIlroy will have plenty reason to be intimidated. Like Woods took majors away from Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in their prime, he could also steal them from McIlroy with a hot putter.
But that’s an enormous “if.”
It makes no sense that Woods would be intimidated by McIlroy, but it does make sense that Tiger could be jealous of him. McIlroy has everything Tiger had at the age of 23 — time was on his side, as was his health, his golf swing and his putting stroke. Now, Tiger doesn’t just have to beat all the golfers that tee it up in major championships, including McIlroy, he has to beat the clock. And as Woods’ hairline shows, right now he’s losing.