The Road Gets Tougher


The Players ChampionshipPONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Paparazzi pursue him.

Helicopters hover over his home.

Gossip tabloids continue to pound away with allegations about the depth of his marital infidelities and reports that his wife will divorce him.

Tiger Woods didn’t just miss the cut at the Quail Hollow Championship last week. He looked like he raised a white flag for the first time in his career. He looked like he gave up.
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods practices Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass. (Getty Images)
His woes include the release of Sports Illustrated’s annual survey of PGA Tour pros last week, which showed that 24 percent of players responding believe he has used performance enhancing drugs.

And then there’s the escalating assault Phil Mickelson is launching on Woods’ standing in the game.

With his Masters’ title and second-place finish at Quail Hollow last week, Mickelson has a chance to seize the No. 1 world ranking from Woods this week.

Welcome to The Players Championship, Mr. Woods. Here’s your ice pack and some aspirin.

Woods faces a challenge this week that seems more daunting than when he won the U.S. Open on a broken leg and blown out knee. He comes here with the possibility he’s playing with a fractured spirit.

“Have I had issues with my confidence? Oh yeah,” Woods said.

You can add that admission to the growing list of stunning developments you never expected to hear from Woods.

With this terrible tide of momentum working against him, Woods sets out this week to turn his game around. He couldn’t ask for a much more difficult place to find his swing. Architect Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course design ruthlessly punishes imprecision.

Through all of these trials, there’s escalating speculation on the relationship between Woods and his swing coach, Hank Haney. Woods confirmed he’s still working with Haney, but the speculation will be fueled with nearly every errant shot that Woods hits. It may not be fair, but it’s the reality that comes with coaching Woods.

Woods said he’s making improvement this week.

“It’s getting better,” Woods said. “It couldn’t get any worse.”

But it sounded like it did in Tuesday’s practice round.

Woods didn’t inspire much belief that’s he ready to bounce back with a vengeance. In his practice round with J.J. Henry and Pat Perez. Woods hit five balls in the water, and he only played nine holes. In another practice round Monday, Jay Haas acknowledged that Woods struggled.

Woods called this one of the two lowest moments of his career. The other was the death of his father. Woods missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in his return after his father died.

Coming back from the self-imposed exile that followed his sex scandal is filled with challenges more daunting than those he faced coming back from reconstructive surgery to his left knee after he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

“This is more taxing, certainly away from the course, with paparazzi following me and all those kinds of things,” Woods said. “Certainly, I didn’t have the distractions last time getting ready for events. You know, helicopters flying over you on the range, that kind of hover over you and film you. That wasn’t the case then. That’s the case now.”

Henry played Tuesday with Woods and saw those five errant shots Woods plunked into the water. Woods rinsed two balls at the 11th hole and shots in the water at the 13th, 14th and 18th holes.

“I wouldn’t make too much of what happened in a practice round on a Tuesday,” Henry said. “We were dropping extra balls. He was working on things.

“It’s just good to see him back. Obviously, he’s not quite 100 percent with his game, but that will take time. He’s the best player in the world. He finds ways to get things done. He can find a way to win. It’s why he is who he is.”

Jim Furyk, a two-time winner this year, isn’t surprised that Woods is struggling with his family life undergoing upheaval.

“When you look at any player, when you have a family situation, it’s tough to focus,” Furyk said. “When something is not right at home, it’s difficult to play.”

Furyk believes the new scrutiny in Woods’ life must be taking a toll.

“He used to have people questioning his game,” Furyk said. “Now they are questioning him as a person. That has to hurt.”

Woods seemed to acknowledge as much.

“I’ve been trying to make life adjustments and make life changes,” he said. “A lot of people, when they go through treatment, they’re able to make these adjustments in anonymity. I’m not. That makes it a lot more difficult.”

The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course’s test won’t make his life any easier this week.