Tuesday Morning Rant: Did Tiger's Clutch Fade

from Nick Suss

March 4, 2014, 10:51 a.m.

Tiger Woods was the best athlete of my generation. While the previous generations had their Michael Jordans and their Joe Montanas and their Roger Staubachs and their Willie Mays and their Mickey Mantles, I grew up in the decade of Tiger. Sure, I grew up watching a lot of transcendently gifted athletes, from Peyton to Pujols, from Federer to Phelps and from Bolt to Bryant. But from about 2000 through 2008, you were crazy to pick the field instead of picking Tiger. Not only do I not remember a time when he wasn’t the best golfer in the world, I honestly would be hard pressed to say I’ve seen a more sustained string of dominance in sports outside of Joey Chestnut in my time on this earth. I always knew that someone better would come along as a career of aging and injuries caught up with Tiger. To quote Bruce Hornsby, that’s just the way it is. But I never thought Tiger Woods would lose the quality that made him Tiger Woods.

Whether or not you believe in the mythical and partially unquantifiable phenomenon we in the sports community have collectively decided to call “clutch” is up to you. I believe in clutch on a sport to sport basis and don’t want to start an argument today about this. (Actually, I kind of do. Football players inherently cannot be clutch. Go to town.) The one thing everyone will agree on is that if clutch exists, Tiger Woods had it. Tiger wasn’t like Phil Mickelson. You never watched Tiger on day 4 of a major expecting him to clang a drive off the concourse or send a chip shot into the bleachers. To this day, I put Tiger’s miracle putt from the 2005 Masters in my Mount Rushmore of sports miracles I’ve seen live. (For the record, the other three are Jeter barreling into the stands against the Sox in ’04, Tyree’s catch in Super Bowl XLII and the Boise State’s Statue of Liberty play against Oklahoma.) But is it possible that the epitome of clutch for an entire generation has lost it? Is it possible for Mr. Cool to go cold?

The one misconception I find with this idea of clutch is that once we apply the tag to someone, we give it to them for life. That just doesn’t make sense. In all sports, play styles constantly evolve. But in golf, the evolution of a swing happens more or less quicker than any other fundamental in sports and is far more impactful too. So, for example, it would take years of training and physical degradation for Kobe Bryant to lose his shot. But one injury or a new coach could forever change Tiger Woods’ swing. And I think it did.

At this point, I’ve told the story enough times that it is sickening. But I’ll tell it again. Back in 2008, I bet a friend of mine that after tearing his ACL at the US Open – one of the better golf events I’ve ever watched, might I add – Tiger Woods would never win a major again. He called me crazy. Everyone else I told called me crazy. But I believed it. Then hookers started falling out of trees a year and a half later and I just sat back and laughed. But the fact of the matter is, Tiger is still playing as well as he has been in a long time, he’s still the best ranked player in the world, but he isn’t winning when it matters. The fact that he is down in majors is a well publicized fact. But let’s look deeper into the numbers for a moment.

Tiger’s final round scoring average in 2013 was 71.13. That ranked 93rd on tour. How the number one ranked player in the world could be the 93rd best day 4 player on tour baffles me. Just a year before, Tiger was the 32nd best day 4 player on tour. In just one year, Tiger has forgotten how to close, it seems. And then there was this weekend’s Honda Classic.

I don’t want to call out Tiger Woods for faking an injury. I don’t think he did or ever would do such a thing. But it is rather suspicious that an injury flared up on the last day of an event where he was “poised to comeback” in the final stretch and then went 5-over in the last series of holes he played. He was grimacing a lot, so I would believe that he was hurt. But the fact of the matter is, Tiger Woods has won events hurt before. Hell, he outlasted Rocco Mediate on a torn ACL! There’s no way back spasms can affect a swing more than a torn ACL. Being hurt is one thing. I feel for the guy. But he’s lost his clutch.

I’ll say it again: clutch is misconceived as something that stretches a lifetime. In some people’s case, this is true. Jeter hit a home run in his first pitch of the DL last July. It doesn’t matter how banged up he was last year, he still showed he was clutch. But for the grand majority of people, clutch dissipates. Neil Young once wrote that it’s better to burn out than fade away. Tiger sure as hell isn’t burning out. He’s fading away both in the present in final rounds and in the more literal sense into the twilight of his career. But he’s not the only one. Federer lost his clutch a few years ago. Now he can’t close out majors anymore. But he’s at least not looked at as the best player in his sport anymore. Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady and both Manning brothers have lost what people think is clutch over the past few seasons, consistently losing in or missing the playoffs. But at least football is a team sport so there are other places to blame. Even Shaun White lost his clutch at the Olympics this year, withdrawing from one event and not even medaling in the event that he pretty much brought to the Olympics.

So why is it that we think clutch is like being on the Supreme Court? Clutch isn’t for life. Clutch is, just as the connotation asserts, in the moment. Being clutch is sinking that putt on day 4 of Augusta. Clutch is hitting that basket as time expires. Clutch is getting on base or clearing the bases in the bottom of the ninth. Clutch is all of these things. But clutch is not a lifetime decree. It is earned through continued action. And Tiger has lost that clutch moniker to me. Federer has lost it. All of those guys have lost it to me.

Can Tiger get it back? Sure. All he’s got to do is prove that he can consistently play well for an extended period of time when it matters. That shouldn’t be hard for the best player in the world, should it? But is Tiger really the best player in the world? That’s up to you to decide. For me, I’ll stand by my now six year old prediction. He’s lost it. Never again will the dominator of my childhood be clutch.


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