SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – This wasn’t how the experiment was supposed to go.
Here stood Tiger Woods, walking aimlessly through a desert left of the 14th fairway at TPC Scottsdale. Circling. Searching.
“Did anyone see where it went?” he asked.
Woods was looking for an errant drive, one that he ultimately found nestled in a bush. Thirteen holes later, a similar question was on the lips of media and fans alike after he carded the highest round of his professional career.
Who is this guy, and what has he done with Tiger Woods?
It was only two days ago, after all, that Woods was upbeat and full of promise. Cracking jokes, speaking of reformed habits and optimistic about finally embarking on a season equipped with a clean bill of health. This added tournament stop would offer much-needed reps and it would serve as a welcome return to an event most thought he had abandoned, the site of one of his most memorable moments.
The swing was good, he said, and the chipping woes of December had been beaten into submission in the offseason by hard work and repetition under new coach Chris Como.
Then he stepped to the tee under the spotlight of competition, and it all became a mirage.
Woods has experienced a variety of on-course low points in recent years, but this was uncharted territory. An outward 44 matched the score he put up at Muirfield Village two years ago, and the 11-over 82 was one more swipe than he took amid abysmal weather conditions at the 2002 Open Championship.
The main culprit Friday was the same one as Thursday, and the same as at last month’s Hero World Challenge. Woods, once blessed with a world-class short game, no longer can chip.
The stat line was woeful, but the visuals were even worse. Faced with a 35-foot pitch from behind the fourth green, Woods hit it 47 yards over the green. A 31-yard chip on No. 14 traveled only 19 yards. He stood 48 feet from the hole on No. 15, and two strikes later he was still 25 feet from the target.
First a blade, then a chunk. Duffs followed by skulls. Woods covered the entire spectrum of poor short-game shots, improbably transformed into a 12-handicap once he stepped within 50 yards of the green.
His response after the round, as it often has in recent years, went back to mechanics.
“Well, it’s the pattern,” Woods said. “I was much deeper overall swing-wise. My attacking was much deeper with Sean (Foley). Now I’m very shallow, so that in turn affects the chipping. I’m not bottoming out in the same spot. It’s a different spot.”
Patterns and spots and bottoming out are wonderful subjects to discuss during practice rounds or offseason workouts, but they don’t help execute a shot when it counts. Faced with that task time after time this week, Woods simply appeared lost.
“It was painful to watch,” said Jordan Spieth, who played the first two rounds with Woods, “because you know his short game was once as good as anybody’s will ever be.”
Therein lies the sad truth to Woods’ current struggle: the fall not only came quickly, but from such unprecedented heights. Woods relied on his short game as an asset for years, and in turn it has now deserted him in the coldest and most brutal fashion imaginable.
Woods – Tiger Woods, for goodness sake! – has the yips.
After some prodding, Woods finally ceded that some of his troubles could be rooted in the mental side of his game, even if he quickly returned to familiar keywords during the explanation.
“It is mental to an extent because the physical pattern is different,” he said. “So obviously when the physical pattern is different, the trust is not quite there. I’m not bottoming out in the same spot. Yeah, to an extent, yes it is (mental), but I need to physically get the club in a better spot.”
The 17th hole served as a microcosm for Woods’ short-game woes, as he and Spieth were in nearly identical positions in the fairway short of the green at the short par 4. Woods stood by as Spieth confidently pulled out a wedge and spun his pitch to within 3 feet of the hole. Tap-in birdie.
Seemingly wracked with indecision, Woods hesitated before drawing a mid-iron. His bump-and-run attempt barely got airborne, and the shot stopped short of the putting surface. It led to a bogey.
The trust, the self-belief that propelled him to such amazing heights has evaporated to the point that Woods does not have the confidence to even attempt a shot that most pros consider routine. It was the fourth of six pitches, chips or bunker shots Friday that he failed to simply get on the green.
Admittedly in need of tournament rounds, Woods exits Phoenix with two fewer reps than he expected as the litany of questions surrounding his game only grows.
Now he heads to San Diego, where the search for answers will continue.