PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Even at his worst, Tiger Woods has never looked this bad.
It was only a month ago that Woods returned to golf with a performance that satisfied everyone but him. He tied for fourth in the Masters, his first competition in five months. And while his personal life was a mess, it appeared his golf game wasn’t about to suffer.
So much has changed in such a short time.
Woods looked lost on the golf course in missing the cut at Quail Hollow last week with the highest 36-hole score of his career. He looked even more distant as he sat in front of his locker Sunday at the TPC Sawgrass with his head bowed, elbows resting on his knees. He failed to finish another tournament, this time because of a sore neck that forced him to withdraw after six holes.
It was the first time Woods, with more than $93 million in career earnings, has gone consecutive weeks without making a dime.
“It’s early,” Paul Goydos said. “What he’s going through is unprecedented. We don’t know what’s going on. At some point, his life will normalize, as normal as Tiger’s life ever gets. And then we’ll see.”
When he looked up to take a few questions, Woods leaned against his locker with his eyes closed as if he were not listening. At one point, he slammed his shoe to the floor.
Three months ago in the same clubhouse at the TPC Sawgrass – down the hallway and up a flight of stairs – Woods appeared in public for the first time to read a statement about the extramarital affairs that shattered his image and fractured his family.
He wore a dark suit then, his Sunday red shirt now.
In both cases, his aura of invincibility was missing.
It is too early to judge how Woods will recover from this scandal, and it doesn’t help that Woods is no more forthcoming about his game or his health than he was even in good times.
Only at the Masters did he reveal he had a torn Achilles’ during 2009. And while he said Friday that his rebuilt left knee was 100 percent, he never said anything about his neck until Sunday, when he mentioned that it had been bothering him before the Masters.
He has received warm receptions, though the praise is not universal. One woman in Charlotte, N.C., gave a thumbs-down when Woods walked by on his way to the tee. The low point might have come Saturday, when a young boy with an autograph from Phil Mickelson yelled out to Woods, “Tiger, say so long to No. 1. Kiss it goodbye.”
Mickelson, who could have replaced Woods at No. 1 with a victory Sunday, was standing only a few feet away.
“He got heckled by a 7-year-old,” Goydos said with wonder. “That’s brutal. He’s got to get used to that. He’s got a lot on his head and the game is hard. And it’s hard for everybody. He made it look so easy, so when he’s not making it look easy, we wonder what’s wrong. He’s going through a tough patch. If he has 80 percent of the people completely idolizing him, that’s still a big drop.
“He hasn’t been playing, and he’s not playing well,” Goydos said. “And he’s never been under a microscope like this before.”
Woods bristled at the media for making a big deal about hitting five balls in the water during nine holes of practice Tuesday. He said he was working on his swing, not overly concerned with the results when he wasn’t keeping score. But when the tournament began, there were shots that didn’t belong to the No. 1 player – or any PGA Tour player.
Woods twice popped up a tee shot so badly that he had to hit 5-wood for his second shot into a par. Another went 45 degrees to the right and landed in the pond on an adjacent hole.
Even the shots that stayed inside the gallery looked ordinary. This hardly looked like the guy who collected his 82nd title worldwide in Australia six months ago, or who has 14 majors going into a year in which he is expected to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus.
The U.S. Open next month is at Pebble Beach, where Woods won by 15 shots. Then comes the British Open at St. Andrews, where he already has won twice by a combined 13 shots.
“His history is particularly good at those golf courses, “Goydos said. “If he goes through all those places and is not competitive, then you can ask questions.”
So many questions still remain.
Woods will not delve into family matters, although a divorce seems imminent. He spent some of his time at The Players Championship denying speculation that he is about to leave Hank Haney, his swing coach since 2004.
Haney said he had been paid last week for work in the next quarter. Woods followed by confirming that he was still working with Haney, although he didn’t go into specifics and spoke throughout the week about changes to his swing.
Meanwhile, it already is May and Woods is No. 122 on the PGA Tour money list. He is tied for 147th in the FedEx Cup standings. He will stay No. 1 in the world for the next two weeks, at least until Mickelson next plays at the Colonial and gets another shot at him.
Above all, he does not look like the same Tiger – and he’s certainly not playing like him.
“Tiger is facing his greatest challenge,” Hal Sutton said earlier in the week. “Tiger meets every challenge with his head held high and knowing that he will overcome. He’s had better control of his mind than almost any player I’ve ever watched play the game.
“You know, I’m sure Tiger will figure that out,” he said. “He’s figured everything else out.”