Tiger Woods has the yips. Woods has done a lot of astounding things in his career, but the past two days at the Phoenix Open were as startling as anything we've ever seen from the 14-time major winner.
There have been poor stretches before, but the way Tiger approached shots around the green during his career-worst stay in Phoenix indicated this may be an issue that will linger for a long time. It wasn't the score, although the last place finish is outrageous, but the way he helplessly posted it over two days.
Tiger simply couldn't hit a chip shot or pitch shot onto the green. It's one of the more basic aspects of the game and an area every PGA Tour-caliber player has mastered. It was sad, uncomfortable, and amazing to watch from perhaps the greatest player of all time.
Signs of these short game troubles whacked us in the face last month at his Hero World Challenge, where he came in dead last in a limited field of 18 players. At that event, Tiger constantly chunked simple chip shots -- just stubbing the ball a few feet in front of him and struggling to get it on the green. There were at least nine instances of this happening, and the lowlights prompted audible and painful yelps while watching. We were told that the course conditions at Isleworth were the cause of those chips; that the grain of the grass and they way it was mowed resulted in comparable chunks from those tight lies with other players, too. But no one kept repeating it in the same way Tiger did over four days.
More on Tiger
In Phoenix, Tiger instantly signaled that those short game troubles last month were not an isolated tournament. As if he were some high-handicapping 65-year-old chop playing his weekend round at the local muni, Woods began his first round by using a 7-iron from just off the green to try and run it up onto the putting surface. He used those mid-irons to chip repeatedly over two days and when he didn't, he'd pull a putter and thump it on the ground from 10 yards off the green -- an even greater sign of desperation. The mid-irons and putter made it clear things were dire for Tiger, and none of these workarounds to hide his chipping yips produced any positive results.
The mid-irons and putts from off the green never really came close to the cup, producing bogeys and godawful scrambling stats. On occasion, there was no way around it and circumstances demanded he pitch it onto the green. The first came at the third hole on Thursday, and he promptly duffed it, leaving it in the rough just a few feet in front of him. If he wasn't chunking chip shots, he was blading them straight through the greens. This should be a rote pitch shot:
He duffed and bladed the same shots again on Friday in what became a most uncomfortable meltdown, a public display of the yips in full.
Tiger blades chip across the green into the front bunker. Puts his hands out to his sides like asking why is this happening— Michael Collins (@ESPNCaddie) January 30, 2015
It's hard to pick the lowest point, but perhaps the biggest signal that his game is a total mess right now was the triple bogey 8 on a par-5. That 8 was made with just one putt, accentuating just how much of a mess his game is scrambling around the green right now.
The short game is obviously the most alarming part of Tiger's struggle right now, but his driver was pretty wild each day, too, as he continually bombed them right and off the course. His irons were not solid, either, misjudging distances and rarely hitting his spots with approach shots. It was just all bad and that's how you end up in dead last and with the worst score of a career on a course that's relatively easy.
This week at TPC Scottsdale, Woods was compared to MJ on the Wizards, Willie Mays with the Mets, Steve Sax, and Ian Baker-"Flinch." He says he's just "between patterns" with his short game as he transitions from the Sean Foley swing to a new motion under the consultancy of Chris Como. But there's a mental aspect to what's going on with his short game. Choosing mid-irons and putters only amplified how crippled he was in those common and simple circumstances. It's only going to get harder, too, as these lies and this grass in Phoenix are quite easy to chip off compared to the upcoming Bermuda of the Florida swing and the incomparably tight lies at Augusta. The chipping yips are a mostly mental phenomenon, and according to those who have had them, they never really go away.
Tiger Woods is larger than golf. He's the singular force in the game. His every shot is always going to be chronicled in front of the cameras, and that's a particularly awful place for someone with the yips to be. If this is the beginning of the end of, it's going to play out in front of everyone.