They are so good for so long, and then suddenly we’re wondering — they’re wondering — how and why the great players go into decline.
Why can’t Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum get the ball over the plate any more? How did the Niners’ Vernon Davis last season go from star to question mark? And what has happened to Tiger Woods?
Age cannot be discounted. We know eventually Father Time wins every game, every match, every contest. Still, Davis is just 31, on the cusp for an NFL player.
Perhaps the years are showing for Lincecum, although he won’t be 31 until July. Pitchers, however, often last well into their mid-30s.
Golfers, the best ones — and Tiger arguably is no worse than the second-best of all time — should be competitive 10 years after that. Phil Mickelson won British Open at 43, Jack Nicklaus a Masters at 46.
Yet at 39, after surgery on his back, after rehab, after changing coaches a fourth time, Woods seems as bewildered by the game as a 10-year-old picking up a club for the first time.
As those who have watched him even before Woods left Stanford in 1996 to join the PGA Tour are similarly bewildered by Tiger.
What’s happened to the golfer fans call “The Man”? Are his problems physical or mental?
The cop-out response is both. The harder you try — think about the struggles of Barry Zito — the worse the problem gets. Tiger is talking about the club not coming in as steeply as he once did under a previous teacher. Once doubt enters a player’s head, the beauty of one’s swing doesn’t matter.
For most of his 19 years as a pro, Woods has set records and set the game on its figurative ear. He won 79 times on Tour (second to the 82 of Ben Hogan), 14 of those major championships (second to the 18 of Nicklaus). For more than a decade, there never was a tournament in which he wasn’t the favorite.
But now Tiger’s world and the world of golf are upside down and inside out. For this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, a course on which he’s won nine times, including the 2008 U.S.Open and an amateur event, Woods is a 50-1 shot.
Those are the longest odds ever for Woods as a pro, according to Jeff Sherman of the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. Those are odds you’d give for someone who has to wait in line for a tee time at TPC Harding Park.
Woods played his worst golf in memory last weekend in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the second-round posting his highest score as a touring pro, an 11-over-par 82.
His short game, chipping and putting, where strokes are saved or strokes are wasted, makes one want to cringe. That guy chunking one shot and whacking the next 10 feet past the pin? That can’t be Tiger Woods.
Oh, but it is. We’ve been through a lot as observers, saw the magnificent Willie Mays at age 43 in 1974 virtually grow old before our eyes. It was difficult to accept. Tiger Woods’ bumbling has been no less difficult.