DUBLIN, Ohio – Tiger Woods is a creature of habit.
He loves to play at his preferred venues, almost to the point where you can plot his schedule years in advance. He has had largely the same on-course routine for two decades, from range warm-up to pre-shot routine.
Those constants have won him title after title and cemented him as the greatest player of his generation.
But there has been one notable exception.
Woods can border on robotic about seemingly every aspect of his tournament preparation and performance, except for the actual motion of striking the golf ball. He has deconstructed and reconstructed his swing time and again, always seeking the perfection that, deep down, all players know is unattainable.
He is again back at the drawing board alongside swing consultant Chris Como, except this time there’s a chance that these efforts might never yield the desired results.
Woods’ third-round 85 at the Memorial was a stunning reminder that he is not within the same stratosphere as the player who won PGA Tour events with regularity, let alone major titles. Legions will see it as more proof of the end of his run.
A more accurate look, though, shows a man who is working his butt off and getting nothing out of it.
Prior to Saturday’s implosion, Woods had trotted out some of his favorite buzzwords: "reps," "patterns," and so on. When he got off to a rocky start in the opening round, he reiterated that his swing and his game remain a work in progress.
“I’m staying committed to what we’re working on,” Woods said. “I’ve gone through phases like this, rounds like this before in the past where, yeah, it’s easy to revert back and go ahead and hit some old pattern, but it doesn’t do you any good going forward.”
Woods has embraced Como's plan, banking on the dark days eventually turning to positive results. That was the case when he rebuilt his swing under Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and Sean Foley.
“Got to suck it up,” he said. “If you believe in it, do it. And eventually it will start turning.”
But this is not an oven. Woods will not be midway through his sixth bag of balls one day on the range, hear a ding and discover that his swing has been grooved.
A return to form will require effort, sure, but what if Woods is simply spinning his wheels? What if he is stubbornly committed to the wrong path?
Remember, Woods is only a few months removed from what we previously thought was a low point – an 82 at TPC Scottsdale that seemed to shake him to his core and led him to question whether he had the chops to hang with the best on Tour.
That bobble was explained away, as was his middling showing at TPC Sawgrass. He just needs more tournament reps, just needs to move from one pattern to the next. Just needs the changes to finally sink in.
So does the same notion apply to his showing at Muirfield Village, where he carved up the finishing hole Saturday like a 15-handicap? And if so, what is the shelf life on this transition period before the subject can be broached that, well, maybe these efforts are simply going for naught?
According to this week’s host, Woods can take one step in the right direction by eliminating a few variables.
“I think Tiger just needs to go back and review some of his own things, rather than listen to somebody else,” Jack Nicklaus said during Saturday’s telecast. “He’s the only one inside him who knows what’s really going on. He’s the only one who’s going to be able to fix what he’s got.”
Woods will have plenty of alone time during the final round, playing as a single in Sunday’s first group. Such are the consequences of starting the day 27 shots off the lead.
Within the sphere of his golf swing, Tiger has been tinkering for his entire career, and he remains clearly committed to change. It’s a logical and necessary approach considering his results over the past year and a half, but at this point it seems there’s a chance that he’s simply grinding in the wrong direction.
Not all wandering through the desert leads to a promised land.