He spent the first three months of the year sorting out his personal problems and didn’t make his 2010 debut until the Masters, the latest that Woods had ever started a season. With greater scrutiny that he had ever witnessed, and without competition for 144 days, Woods returned at Augusta National as if he had never been gone. He opened with a 68, the first time Woods had ever broken 70 in the opening round of the Masters. His tie for fourth was remarkable under the circumstances, and some felt it would not be long until Woods was dominating golf as he had done the last six years. They were wrong, and it didn’t take long to find out.
The rust everyone expected at the Masters showed up at Quail Hollow, where he went seven holes without hitting a fairway and opened with a 74. Early in the second round, Woods had a 15-foot birdie putt down the hill that went 8 feet by the hole. It was a mental error, a sign that his head was not in the game. And it only got worse from there. By the time he reached the 15th hole, he had virtually no chance of making the cut. He shot a 79, his worst score on American soil as a pro and the second-highest score of his professional career. He matched his highest score for nine holes (43), and his 36-hole score of 153 was the highest in his 14 years on the PGA Tour. It was only the sixth time he had missed the cut, but never like this. He missed by a whopping eight shots, and he was 17 shots out of the lead. A week later at The Players Championship, he popped up one tee shot and hit another so far to the right that it found a water hazard on the adjacent hole. He was at the back of the pack on Sunday when he stopped after six holes and withdrew with an injury in his neck area. It was one of many low points for Woods, and it marked the first time in his career he had gone consecutive tournaments without making a check. Then came another big change in a year filled with them. The day after he withdrew, Haney said he was resigning as his swing coach.
“It was evident after Augusta that it was going to be a bit of a struggle,” said Steve Williams, his caddie of 12 years. “Then, of course, he was questioning his own swing and whether it might be time to change his swing. As soon as he made that decision, I knew right there and then it was going to be more of a rebuilding year. Which is fine.”
The commotion of his first full month back to golf eventually gave way to a player no one had seen before. He wasn’t spectacular. He wasn’t awful. It was somewhere in between. He looked ordinary. Woods had no intention of replacing Haney with anything but a video camera, although it became clear he had no direction in his swing. During the opening rounds of The Players Championship, a longtime British golf journalist walked out to the TPC Sawgrass to watch him play. He left after two holes. “There’s nothing special to see,” he noted. That was reflected in the shots Woods struck and the score on his card. In his next tournament, the Memorial, he finished 12 shots out of the lead, and it was almost as though Woods were just another player in the field. He played with Steve Stricker and Jason Bohn. Had a golf fan awoken from a 15-year sleep and was asked which player had won 14 majors, he would not have picked Woods.
Jack Nicklaus has been watching Woods’ make a meteoric run at his record 18 professional majors, and it reached a point when Woods won his 14th at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open that it was becoming a matter of when, not if. Then came the calamity in Woods’ private late, and Nicklaus began to wonder. At the start of the season, he said this would be an important year in Woods’ pursuit of the record. The U.S. Open was to be played at Pebble Beach, where Woods had won the last time by 15 shots. The Open Championship was slated for St. Andrews, where Woods had won the last two times by a combined 13 shots. Throw in Augusta National, and those three courses accounted for half of his 14 majors, just as Nicklaus had won exactly half of his 18 majors on them. “If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard,” Nicklaus said the first week of the year. “Certainly, this year with where the majors are … he basically owns all three places. If he doesn’t play this year, the chore will be a little tougher.” Paul Goydos also asked for patience when people were ready to write off Woods after The Players Championship, noting that Pebble Beach and St. Andrews were on the horizon. “His history is particularly good at those golf courses. If he goes through all those places and is not competitive, then you can ask questions,” Goydos said.
Woods showed flashes at Pebble Beach, but only the back nine on Saturday when he shot a 66 in the third round to get into the penultimate group of the final round, five shots behind. He finished in a tie for fourth, the same result he got at Augusta National, only he was never in the hunt on the back nine. A month later, Woods opened with a 67 on the Old Course. When he won the previous two times at St. Andrews, he had opened with rounds of 67 and 66, respectively. But this was nothing special in conditions so calm that he was still four shots out of the lead, and he got no closer the rest of the week. In the lone tournament he played before the Open, Woods failed to break par in any of the four rounds at Aronomink in the AT&T National, the first time he had done that in 11 years.
If there was a low point inside the ropes, it came at the Bridgestone Invitational a month later at Firestone, a course where Woods had won six times. It had been five years since he played the venerable South Course without winning. Just as Woods did at the AT&T National, he teed off so early in the morning that he was finished before the leaders even showed up on the practice range. The final nine holes sounded the alarms, as Woods staggered in with bogeys and worse. He closed with a 77 to record the highest 72-hole score of his career. He finished at 18-over 298, which was 39 shots higher than the record score he shot at Firestone 10 years earlier. Henrik Stenson was the only player who kept Woods from finishing in last place, and Woods set a career low by making bogey or worse on 25 of the 72 holes. Suddenly, his immediate future was clouded. He was not guaranteed to be among the 125 qualifiers for the FedEx Cup, and he was not guaranteed one of the eight automatic spots on the Ryder Cup that would be decided a week later. “He’s just not the regular Tiger we’re used to seeing,” Anthony Kim said.
Woods played a practice round with Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan on Tuesday of the PGA Championship, asking their swing coach, Canadian-born Sean Foley, if he would mind coming along to videotape his swing. Foley was discreet, but the buzz began that Woods was about to hire a third coach as a pro and possibly change his swing for the fourth time. He got his name on the leaderboard early in the first round and lingered, but that was about it. He went a second consecutive year without winning a major and failed to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team, although his desire to play made it clear that U.S. captain Corey Pavin would pick him.
The day before Woods showed up at The Barclays for the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, he was a single man. In an e-mail, his lawyers confirmed that the divorce from his wife of six years had been finalized. In the first round, he finally looked like the Woods of old. He opened with a 65, his best score of the year. He missed only one fairway, putted for birdie on all but two holes, and had his name atop the leaderboard after any round since winning the Australian Masters the previous November. It didn’t last long, but Woods did enough at The Barclays and the following week at the Deutsche Bank Championship to keep advancing. But in the BMW Championship in Chicago, on a course where he had won five times, Woods tied for 15th and was eliminated. He failed to qualify for the Tour Championship two weeks later, the first time he had ever been eligible for a tournament since his rookie season. “His game is not far off,” said Mickelson, who played with Woods in the final round.
He continued to show signs of getting his game back, playing the final seven holes in 7-under par at the Ryder Cup to handily beat Francesco Molinari in singles. He struggled with his putter in the HSBC Champions, and his tie for sixth ended his streak of 14 consecutive years with a PGA Tour victory. In his final tournament of the year at the Chevron World Challenge, he looked so impressive over 54 holes that he built a four-shot lead over McDowell. Even his caddie noticed a difference. “The tide is turning,” Williams said. And then it turned back out to sea, for in the final round, Woods three-putted twice in the opening three holes and lost the lead for good with a double bogey on the par-5 13th. He had a chance to end a troublesome year in style. Tied for the lead, Woods stuffed an 8-iron to 3 feet, a clutch moment for which he has become famous. McDowell, however, rolled in a 20-foot putt to force a playoff, then made another 20-footer birdie to win. “He used to appear invincible,” McDowell said. “Of course, he’s made himself appear more human in the last 12 months. But there’s something a bit special about his golf game, and I fully expect that mystique to return as the golf clubs start doing the talking again.”
There was something very special about McDowell.
The 31-year-old from Northern Ireland was a top collegiate player in the United States and had won four times on the European Tour. He had enjoyed a good career, not a great one, and among his achievements was going 2-1-1 in his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla in 2008 in a losing effort. He was lingering around No. 50 in the world when Woods unwittingly came to the rescue. McDowell replaced Woods in the Chevron World Challenge, and his runner-up finish enabled him to the crack the top 50 in the world. Those ranking points got him into the Masters, a pair of World Golf Championships and ultimately, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The rest is history. “If I don’t finish second at the Chevron last year, perhaps I miss the U.S. Open, and perhaps I’m not sitting here right now after having a dream season,” McDowell said. “It’s kind of weird how small things can shape a year.”
His dream season effectively began at Celtic Manor for the Wales Open two weeks before the U.S. Open. Showing off his explosive nature, McDowell had eight birdies in the opening 11 holes and closed with a 63 for a three-shot victory. It was his first victory in two years, and it came at just the right time _ and the right place. European captain Colin Montgomerie had wanted as many players to see the course ahead of the Ryder Cup, and McDowell obliged. At the time, he figured that victory might go a long way toward earning a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup team if he needed it. Two weeks later, with steady play at Pebble Beach as his world-class challengers were falling apart, McDowell was a U.S. Open champion and a lock to return to Celtic Manor in October. It was the third straight PGA Tour event won by a European, the first time that has ever happened.
McDowell used to joke that if ever won a major, he would spend the rest of the year celebrating as only the Irish he can. And he lived up to that pledge, with a twist: He celebrated by winning more tournaments, and delivering big moments. It didn’t happen right away. McDowell appeared to be knackered from his newfound fame as a major champion, and while made the cut, he didn’t contend. When he got to the PGA Championship in Wisconsin, he missed a cut in a major for the second straight year. But in his tuneup for the Ryder Cup, he came third in Austria, and when he got to Celtic Manor, more glory awaited. When he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole in the final match of the Ryder Cup, and then closed out Mahan on the next hole, McDowell had become the first player since Tom Watson in 1983 to win a major and deliver the clinching point in the Ryder Cup in the same year. A dream season? You could say that.
He gave himself a shot in the Race to Dubai by winning the Andalucia Masters at the end of October, his third European Tour title of the year. Playing with Woods the first two days in the HSBC Champions, McDowell didn’t show much and it looked as though he might be happy to let the rest of the year run its course. In the Dubai World Championship, which came down to him and Kaymer, McDowell tied for 13th.
Despite the emotional fatigue, he had embarked on a tour around the world. It is not uncommon for European players to bounce from continent to continent, but McDowell took a trip that would have impressed Gary Player. He went from Spain to Shanghai, then Singapore and Hong Kong before the Dubai World Championship. Then it was off to California for the Chevron World Challenge. “I’m looking forward to drinking a few cold beers and looking back on a great year,” McDowell said. “It’s been amazing, and it’s been a whirlwind ride.” He said this on Wednesday of the Chevron World Challenge, not aware of yet another thrill waiting for him.