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The Tiger (trunk) slam

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The PGA Championship is not the end of the season, not by a long shot, but it certainly felt like it for Tiger Woods on a hot and humid Friday at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Although not the end of the world, rounds of 77 and 73 – which left him six shots on the business end of the cut line – may end up being the end of the 2011 road for a player that began the year ranked second in the world and is on pace to ring in the New Year outside the top 50.

Woods’ early exit from the PGA Championship guaranteed that he will miss the FedEx Cup playoffs. His next “scheduled” start is the Australian Open in November, confirming that he will not play next week’s regular-season ending Wyndham Championship and leaving only the slimmest of possibilities that he will participate in any of the Fall Series fun.

His tie for 116th was, for all practical purposes, his competitive swansong for 2011, leaving just a single item to be addressed: What’s next?

Woods’ clipped answer was predictable if not particularly enlightening, head back to his south Florida lab to debug a swing that had multiple personalities at AAC.

He played his first five holes in 3 under, his last six in 1 under and everything in between was not for public consumption. For the week Woods dunked four balls into the warm Georgia waters, posted five double bogeys and played out of 23 bunkers.

It was almost enough to give stand-in caddie Bryon Bell raker’s elbow.

The only highlight may have been that Bell did not break silence and announce, “This was not my most memorable tournament.”

There were signs of life, like his birdie-birdie turn that pulled him to within three shots of a weekend tee time. But he went bunker-bunker-billabong at the 11th and followed with two trips to the woods at the 12th for back-to-back double bogeys.

Adrift between swings, to say nothing of a battered psyche, Woods was less angry late Friday than he was resolved to his plot.

“I’ve got some time off to work on my game and now I’m healthy enough to work on my game,” he said. “It’s a great leap forward that I was able to play two straight weeks healthy.”

And yet somehow it all felt like two giant hops back for golf.

Even if Woods were to play the Fall Series, a victory at Disney isn’t going to change the fact that 2011 may be his worst season as a professional. In order, he had eight starts, posted two top 10s, missed one cut and withdrew with injury from The Players. Maybe 2010 was statistically worse – 12 starts, two top 10s, a missed cut and a withdrawal with injury from The Players – but it doesn’t feel like it.

Maybe it’s because this calendar brought hope following the turmoil of 2010. Maybe it’s because we didn’t think it could get any worse. Maybe it’s because he’s made unrealistic expectations the status quo.

Whatever the reason, the result is an empty feeling that likely won’t get a fix until next year at Torrey Pines. Another hiatus, another round of endless speculation.

The only thing that is certain is that three months on the “DL,” a wet-behind-the-ears swing and what will likely be the year’s most demanding major layout proved to be the imperfect storm for Woods.

“I don’t think he’s that far off, but he’s rusty, that’s what people don’t get,” said Davis Love III, who walked all 36 holes alongside Woods at AAC. “He’s trying to figure it out in a big event and that doesn’t work. I’ve tried to do that. It’s hard to do at a big tournament. It would be easier at the John Deere (Classic) where there’s some fairway.”

But at this point there are no John Deeres in Woods’ future. No soft openings or rehab starts to build confidence. Just the Australian Open likely followed by the Presidents Cup, another intense gathering that provides precious little cover for a work in progress.

U.S. captain Fred Couples will make his wild card pick on Sept. 26 (the Monday after the Tour Championship), singular because he’s already made it clear to anyone who would listen that Woods was on the team. After 36 in Hotlanta, Michael Jordan may be more deserving of a captain’s nod.

Already blog-dom has erupted with reports of Woods’ demise, as one particularly critical observer reasoned on Thursday, “Hello Eldrick Baker-Finch.” And perhaps instant analysis was inevitable considering the finality of it all at Atlanta Athletic Club, but Woods’ contemporaries – those who have seen the best, and now perhaps the worst of him – were reluctant to write the obituary just yet.

“Tiger is a bit like myself,” said Padraig Harrington, who was paired with Woods for Rounds 1 and 2. “If you don’t like what you’re doing you lose confidence, but anyone else would think it was a great swing.”

As he rolled out of town it’s not likely Woods thought anything about the 93rd PGA Championship was “great,” and another exile, self-imposed or otherwise, only promised to bring more uncertainty, more questions for Woods and the game.

There is life after Tiger, it just didn’t seem like it on Friday.

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