GAINESVILLE, Va. – It is telling that with little prompting Tiger Woods can chronicle his dog days with such precision and brevity.
“Last year I was struggling through recovery from a [back] surgery. This year I’m still recovering and still trying to make a big major swing change,” he said on Tuesday at the Quicken Loans National. “Problems with my pattern and short game. I haven’t scored very well. I missed cuts.”
That about covers it.
As perplexing as it is to the amateur sports psychologists of the golf world who have taken to dissecting Woods’ every misstep, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Woods’ competitive swoon is even more concerning for the guy currently mired in the maze.
Although there are times when Woods appears detached from the mind-numbing minutia that has defined his last two competitive years – a run that has included more missed cuts (five) than top-25 finishes (two) and saw the former world No. 1 plummet all the way to 266th in the Official World Golf Ranking – there are other times when it is abundantly clear that he’s been paying attention.
On Tuesday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, where he will serve a dual role this week as the host with the most to prove, he was asked about his remaining schedule, which barring a dramatic turn of events the next three weeks will include just two more starts (this week’s Quicken Loans and the PGA Championship).
Although outwardly Woods has appeared to be enduring his most recent struggles with grudging acceptance, the truth is the guy who won 14 majors is as competitive as ever and is simmering under the surface.
“It’s frustrating not to be able to win golf tournaments,” he said. “I’m not really there in contention very often and so that part is frustrating.
There’s always a qualifier. Maybe it’s a competitive firewall, a chance to distance himself from failure and maintain a modicum of confidence. Maybe it’s an honest assessment from a player who has been down this rabbit hole before and emerged with an armful of trophies.
“But I know how close it feels and I know that I just need a couple shots here and there and it turns the tide,” he said.
This time, however, feels and looks different. He never appeared like a man in desperate need of answers during those other transitions; he never missed cuts with such regularity, he never struggled so mightily to score.
It’s become an easy target to point out Woods will turn 40 in December and therefore is simply succumbing to age, but this has less to do with time than it does timing. Current swing consultant Chris Como and Woods crossed paths just as the player was rebounding from back surgery.
That roadblock, combined with a once all-world short game that abandoned him at the most inopportune moment, has magnified Woods’ troubles exponentially.
“I didn’t think it would take this long because I thought I would have my short game earlier,” Woods said. “You can cover up a lot of different things when you’re chipping and putting well. A lot of missteps throughout the years when I’ve changed coaches and techniques, my short game was all pretty good.”
It’s what prompted Woods’ self-imposed hiatus earlier this year after a particularly unsettling start at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
But the true wild card in this trail back to competitive relevancy has been Woods’ prolonged recovery from back surgery in April 2014. Although those who had similar procedures say the recovery period is normally a year, Woods returned to the Tour at last year’s Quicken Loans National less than three months after the surgery. He missed the cut at that event and it seemed to set the tone for the coming months.
“I came off back surgery, changed my golf swing and have done a polar 180 [degree] and recovering from back surgery,” Woods said. “You had those two together it’s a perfect storm and I’ve had to fight through both of those at the same time.”
For those in search of a paradigm of hope, consider that on Tuesday when Woods was asked his current health status and whether it is impacting his game he gave a definitive, albeit short, “no, not anymore.”
He also clung to the notion that this is not an entirely foreign path and that he’s gone through similar transformations throughout his career.
“I’ve gone through this and unfortunately sometimes I have to get a little bit worse before I can make a giant stride to get forward,” he said.
The “little bit worse” has lingered much longer then many, including Woods, expected. Whether his “giant stride” epiphany is one start away remains to be seen.