PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Hank Haney spent Friday in Las Vegas, teaching a comedian how to play golf.
Across the country his star pupil wasn’t finding much to laugh about as he made his way around TPC Sawgrass just trying to make the cut.
Why Haney was taping a reality show with Ray Romano instead of working with Tiger Woods wasn’t exactly clear, especially when Woods’ swing is clearly a mess. Contrary to the rumors sweeping around the state of Florida, though, Woods said the swing coach was still solidly in his employ.
“Hank and I talk every day, so nothing’s changed,” Woods said.
What has changed is this: Three tournaments into his latest comeback, Woods is finding that regaining his dominance on the golf course will be far more difficult than he or anyone else may have ever imagined.
If he needed any reminder, a young kid standing around after Woods signed his scorecard Saturday gave it to him.
“Tiger, say so long to No. I,” he yelled out. “Kiss it goodbye.”
Not so fast, kid. This thing’s not over just quite yet.
Still, the plight of the world’s best golfer is on public display at The Players Championship, where Woods will be long gone by the time they crown a new champion late Sunday afternoon.
So many questions. Not a lot of real answers.
Was the Masters an aberration? Is his personal life so fragile he can’t concentrate? Does forcing himself to acknowledge the existence of fans throw him off stride?
Or is his game just history, done in by a scandal he may never recover from.
Inquiring minds want to know, and for that at least Woods can be grateful. He’s playing so bad right now that even the tabloids can’t dig up enough new dirt to shift the conversation away from golf.
Woods himself blames rust, though that never seemed to stop him before. Remember that he was off just as long recovering from knee surgery last year and still won his third tournament back, the first of what would be six PGA Tour wins.
Back then he didn’t talk about needing more work. Back then he didn’t dwell on the difficulty of regaining his competitive edge.
He went out and won, just like he’s been doing his entire life.
Contrast that with his third tournament back since going into exile and spending time in rehab. Woods seemed so happy just to make the cut on Friday that he had a big smile on his face as he exchanged pleasantries with his playing partners.
Things didn’t get much better Saturday as he stumbled to a finish, treating viewers to the odd sight of the player who used to blow it by everybody hitting a second shot on the par-4 18th hole with a fairway wood.
Afterward, he talked as if it was his golf game that was on a 12-step program.
“This is a process, especially since I haven’t played at all,” Woods said. “I just need more rounds.”
Don’t tell that to the fans so used to watching Woods dominate on Sunday. Or to the golf fanatics who used to be able to mow the lawn and have a leisurely lunch on the weekend before tuning in to see him in action.
Tiger the philanderer they could deal with. Tiger the middle-of-the-pack grinder is another matter.
Yet there he was, popping up tee shots like a weekend hacker, and hitting other shots sideways. His game is in such disarray that he seems to want to hide behind the new sunglasses he now wears between shots.
It now just seems a matter of time before the kid is right and Woods loses the No. 1 ranking he has held for five years to Phil Mickelson. Indeed, that could happen on Sunday should Mickelson shoot another low round and win.
More troubling for Woods is that the future looks just as uncertain. He once seemed destined to pass Jack Nicklaus in major championship wins and be anointed as the greatest player ever, but now his standing in history seems as shaky as his tee shots.
While Woods has won an average of one major a year since turning pro, he’s now 34 and it’s been two years since he won his last U.S. Open. Where he was once the fearless young kid who could blow people away on Sunday, there are now young players seemingly everywhere like Rory McIlroy who can do the same thing.
What is really striking is how Woods seems in denial of what is happening around him. He talks vaguely about other players not being subjected to the same scrutiny he is, but mostly it’s the same party line about how his swing is coming around and it’s just a matter of time before all is well.
He may believe it, though it’s hard to believe much Woods has to say anymore. His pledge to treat the game with more respect unraveled quickly at the Masters, and his pledge to treat fans better didn’t last much longer.
While Mickelson signed autographs by the dozens after his round Saturday, Woods didn’t sign any, not even for two young volunteers.
It was just like old times, except with a twist.
At least then he had the game to get away with it.