Tiger Woods celebrated his 38th birthday on Monday and -- spoiler alert, courtesy of Johnny Miller -- the aging superstar is not the same golfer he was when he was younger.
The passage of time, Woods’ dwindling self-confidence as his opponents’ fearlessness soars, combined with Tiger pressing too hard have made that elusive 15th major title more difficult for the world No. 1 to attain, NBC’s lead analyst said during a Monday teleconference ahead of this week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
"He's just a different player than he was when he was younger, even though he won five times last year. In the majors he seems to be a little bit prone to getting nervous," Miller said. "He wants it so badly, he has that desire and dream when he was young, and he looked like he was a shoo-in because he would get 18, 19, 20 majors, and now after five years, he's like, dang, those are hard to get."
Miller suggested that the gag reflex had something to do with Woods’ faltering down the stretch of the majors of late and that if he failed to win his fifth green jacket at Augusta in April, he could kiss the remaining three 2014 grand slam events goodbye.
"I think he just wants it so badly, and he knows Augusta was made to order for him," Miller noted. "[In the past], his irons came in so high that the first bounce was more up than out, so he was able to stop it. He was able to hit it longer, he was able to stop it better, his chipping was phenomenal, and of course his choke factor was off the charts.
"He had all those things going for him," added Miller. "But now he's getting shorter every year, I think he's hitting it 293, which doesn't sound like it's short, but he's not able to get three, four clubs less into holes like 15 like he used to when he was a young guy."
Miller offered additional sobering observations about why Woods has been stuck on 14 major championships for the past five-plus years, including what he seemed to believe was a fresh contention that Tiger’s aura had disappeared. For those keeping score at home, Woods has not put the fear of the golf gods in playing partners since Y.E. Yang shocked him at the 2009 PGA Championship, but for anyone unaware that any number of players can beat Woods on any given major Sunday, Miller restated the obvious.
"Guys are just saying, ‘yeah, you're Tiger Woods and you're the greatest ever, but now at your age, I can beat you,’" he averred. "Like at Olympic last year, he could have won that [U.S.] Open, and in the old days he probably would have won it. He's a little bit different guy."
With the "playing field ... a little bit more level," when Dustin Johnson and other boomers can blow past Woods off the tee, Tiger has "lost a lot of the fear factor," Miller said.
As he has proven in the recent past, Woods can start a major with a roar but finish with a whimper on the weekends. His now legendary Saturday and Sunday implosions, as well as the lack of intimidation that seemed to wilt pre-Yang competitors who met the younger Woods on the tee in major finales, have been the elder Tiger’s downfall, Miller said.
"Guys, they're not as scared, like a Zach Johnson is able to do, like he was able to do at Sherwood," he said about the 2007 Masters winner’s victory over his tourney host at the Northwest Mutual World Challenge earlier this month. "Before, guys just wouldn't do that against Tiger. It's getting much harder for Tiger, because ... he's not able to close as well as he used to, and then the guys are more heroic against him like they never were before."
"He had the rules brouhaha, and all those things, they knock your confidence down," said Miller, never one to miss an opportunity to inject his own storied career into a conversation. "Golf is about your psyche and your confidence, and I had about 10 minutes where I was probably the best player in the world, but it was a very interesting time, and the confidence was sky high. That's one reason why I was able to do so well."
Good to know that, while Tiger's bravado may be on the back nine, Johnny's hasn't even made the turn.