Small Stage for Biggest Star


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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. ' So the man who does bigger better than Donald Trump glanced around the Oval Office and was struck by a undersized thought: Its a little bit smaller than you might think, the First Golfer said of his April 20 meeting with the new President.
On Tuesday, about as far away from the White House as one can get without a passport, Woods made his way around the front 9 at TPC Sawgrass and the same thought occurred regarding Pete Dyes swamp monster.
Just ask D.A. Points, an endearing Tour journeyman who was making the most of his first Players experience despite his status on the wrong side of the alternate line.
Ive lived 2 hours away (in Orlando) for eight years and have never made it up here, Points said. Its not as hard as I thought it would be. I expected driver-4-iron, driver-3-iron, but you find out tee to green its playable.
It was Points even-handed way of saying the Stadium is a bit smaller than you might think, and perhaps the best of all theories why after 11 professional attempts The Players remains the lone marquee event Woods hasnt owned. He hasnt even rented the joint, to be honest.
Woods TPC line is a 1-for-11 slide ' 2-for-12 if you count that U.S. Amateur title and 17th-green walkoff in 1994 ' that adds up to slump, no matter how you slice it.
In many ways golfs fifth major has become something of a fifth wheel for Woods. His current form notwithstanding ' as one scribe mused on Tuesday he seems to be missing with 1/14th of that prolific bag, at Doral it was his putting, ballstriking at the Masters and driving at Quail Hollow ' but this doesnt appear to be a course for this horse.
I haven't hit the ball well here, Woods said. The year I did, the last year I played it, I did, but couldn't make a putt. Just kind of typical how this year has been; I haven't really put all the pieces together, and you have to have that in order to win this tournament.
For Woods there has been less good (T-10, 2nd, win; 1999-01) and more bad (T-14, T-11, T-16; 2002-04) and ugly (T-53, T-22, T-37; 2005-07) on Floridas First Coast. In his last three Players starts hes ranked inside the top 30 in greens in regulation, fairways hit and putts just once (T-16 GIR in 06) and managed under-par cards in three of his last 12 trips around the flagship TPC.
If other venues have visions of Tiger-proofing there layouts, look no further. The Stadium mitigates Woods power advantage ' Phil Mickelson said he will hit driver on just three holes per round this week ' and requires the field to play from the same spot, democratic golf that has produced a diverse list of champions from Mickelson (2007), the bomber, to Fred Funk (2005), the plodder.
The Players is to Woods what Roland Garros was to Roger Federer, a statistical anomaly that defies explanation and makes United Kingdom bookmakers rich.
Of course it doesnt help that Woods competitive calendar has been slow to take off post-surgery. By his own account, Woods victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was ahead of schedule and his play on Sunday at Augusta National was inspired a little too little, too late. But his 1-for-5 start ' and, make no mistake, champions hardware is all that really counts in Windermere, Fla., bragging circles ' is his worst opening to a season since 2004, when he won just once on Tour all season.
The pop may be back in Woods swing, but sporting reality is that the Baltimore Orioles dont head into Fenway looking to end a four-game slide and perhaps it would be the acme of foolishness to think Woods would use The Players to put all the pieces together.
The Players is also Woods first back-to-back outing since last spring when he won at Bay Hill and followed with a fifth-place showing at Doral, a physical litmus test that will give Woods and the world a glimpse at how strong that rebuilt left knee really is.
Thats the unknown, Woods said. That's one of the challenges we were looking at at the beginning of the year, is how are you going to do back-to-back, because obviously we didn't know. I haven't had any setbacks so far this year. That's a big thing going into my second week playing in a row. You would think that's no big deal, but to me it is
But then, maybe the bigger deal is a changing dynamic when it comes to all things Woods, whether they be real or perceived.
Last Sunday at Quail Hollow Woods needed to shoot a 2-under 70 to force a playoff with Sean OHair and managed an even-par card. At Augusta National, Woods pars the last two holes to get to 10 under the mystique might bring out a different set of nerves for Angel Cabrera. Instead, OHair and Cabrera forge ahead.
Make no mistake, Woods armor is still nickel-plated and four out of five tools is no reason to consider early retirement, but 10 months of near inactivity seems to have forged a different set of rules among the supporting cast.
That air of invincibility has not been replaced, but the thought that anything can happen has crept in.
There has not been a course built that Woods cant win on, but some ballparks are bigger than others and, like the Oval Office, TPC Sawgrass may be a tad on the small size for the games biggest star.

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