JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tiger Woods laughed at the question and it was hard to blame him.
Woods had won 82 times around the world, including 14 majors. In the 47 tournaments that he had the outright lead going into the final round, only four players had managed to beat him. This was golf’s ultimate closer.
But this also was a new world for Woods.
In the 12 months since his personal life came crashing down, he not only failed to win, he was never in serious contention. On this occasion, the 2010 Australian Masters, he made two eagles on the last four holes to turn an ordinary round into a 65 and back his way into fourth place. He was asked that day if he would have to learn how to win again the longer he failed to get in the hunt.
“No,” he said, breaking into a confident smile.
Woods didn’t even let the reporter finish a follow-up question, smiling while shaking his head. “No, no, no.”
Three weeks later, Woods blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Chevron World Challenge and lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell. He later attributed that to being able to hit only one shot — a draw — while in the early stages of a swing overhaul.
A year later, when his health returned, Woods had a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the Australian Open and shot 75, falling six shots behind and never catching up. And then on Sunday in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, he was tied for the 54-hole lead with Robert Rock and couldn’t hang with an Englishman who was No. 117 in the world with one career victory.
One shot behind when he made the turn, Woods didn’t make a single birdie on the back nine.
Not to be overlooked was his win at the Chevron World Challenge two months ago, when he started the final round one shot behind Zach Johnson and birdied the last two holes for a one-shot victory. It was an important win because it meant something to Woods, yet it was hard not to notice how much harder he had to work to get it.
Woods is still not there. He never thought winning was easy, but he used to make it look that way.
So what to make of Abu Dhabi?
As usual, it’s best not to jump to conclusions about Woods. Even back in more peaceful times, there were whispers that he was in a slump to start the 2001 season. He failed to win his first five tournaments, then went to Dubai and lost a one-shot lead to Thomas Bjorn, hitting into the water and making double bogey on his last hole.
“A lot of people are talking about Tiger being in a slump and he’s not doing the right things,” Bjorn said that day. “The guy is playing fantastic golf. He just hasn’t won in the last couple of weeks.”
Not years. Not months. Weeks.
Sure enough, Woods won his next three tournaments, capping it off at the Masters for an unprecedented sweep of the majors.
Expectations always will be higher for Woods for no other reason than his record was so astounding from the lead. After that loss to Bjorn until the 2009 PGA Championship, he was 25-0 with the outright lead going into the final round.
Over the course of a career, it’s bound to even out a little. And remember, there was one year when Woods twice lost tournaments when he had at least a share of the lead going into the final round. That was in 2000, when many believe he was at the top of his game.
Winning, though, is more important than ever now.
Woods no longer has that aura of invincibility. That will only return if he starts winning with regularity, and it doesn’t matter whether he beats Robert Rock or Rory McIlroy.
Nick Faldo once thought the Masters would be the only major Woods could win, because it was the only golf course where the media were kept outside the ropes. Only later did Faldo realize what an advantage that turned out to be for Woods.
“Everyone joining him now on the weekend at a major goes into his world,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. “That’s Tiger’s arena. Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out. He’s there all the time. And each times he’s there, he gains more experience. And then for the rest of the guys, good luck stepping into his world.”
That world suddenly is crowded.
At the moment, no matter how much he has improved, Woods has not set himself apart.
To suggest that Woods faces deeper competition than ever before is to ignore his dominance, and to show little respect for those who had to face him at his best. When one guy is winning 11-of-29 majors while taking an average of six PGA Tour events a year, that doesn’t leave much for everyone else.
But the more opportunities Woods lets slip away, such as Abu Dhabi, the longer it takes to regain his edge, if he ever does.
Woods decided two years ago that he was willing to put in the time to revamp his swing under a third coach, Sean Foley, and that process appears to be coming along. Not to be forgotten is that Woods missed nearly five months of being able to practice because of injuries to his legs.
Luke Donald and Robert Karlsson, who played with him in Abu Dhabi, were struck by the flight and shape of Woods’ shot. That’s what always set him apart from the others — that and his putting. Ultimately, putting will determine not only whether Woods wins again, but how often.
In the meantime, Abu Dhabi can be perceived two ways.
It was another chance for Woods to establish himself against this new world order, and he couldn’t buy a birdie; or in his last three tournaments, he has won and finished third twice.
But the question remains from two years ago.
He took the time to learn a new swing under a new coach. Now does he have to teach himself how to win again?
For that, he has only one teacher.