SAN DIEGO – And to think, just five days ago, it was reasonable to wonder if anything would be inferred, big picture, from yet another dominant Tiger Woods performance at Torrey Pines.
So much for that.
Now, apparently, there is no shortage of takeaways from Woods’ 2014 debut. And depending on whom you believe, the shaky start to his nascent season is either: 1.) No big deal; 2.) Reason for pause; 3.) Or still another sign that he’s done, finished, burnt toast.
With no Tiger or Phil Mickelson to fill airtime at the Farmers Insurance Open, there were plenty of opportunities to analyze (and then analyze again) what went wrong.
Best we can tell, here are the various criticisms of Woods, three days into his new campaign:
• He was rusty, after a six-week layoff. Asked last week what he did during the short off-season, Woods replied: “I didn’t do much.” Looked like it, too.
• He was disenchanted with Torrey’s bulked-up setup. With wrist-damaging rough and firm-and-fast greens, there was no easing into the season.
• His ball-striking suffered because his backswing was too short – or, as Brandel Chamblee put it last week, that of a “55-year-old man.”
• He is too muscly in the torso, again. Can’t confirm this one, of course, because Woods walks into a scoring hut to sign his card, not step on a scale.
All possibilities, we suppose, and Woods himself could have set the record straight, explained how he butchered a course he usually owns, but he declined.
The world No. 1 wasn’t sharp at Torrey Pines, not by a long shot, but he wasn’t as bad as his 6-over 222 would suggest, either. Several of Woods’ drives missed the fairway by a few feet, which meant that his ball plunged into the deep, thick rough. He found the fairway less than half the time (43 percent), which had a trickle-down effect on the rest of his game.
So let’s see: Cranky driver. Competitive rust. Out-of-sync swing. U.S. Open-like setup. Add it all up and it’s a blueprint for a grind-fest.
Last year, though, Woods missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, flew back to the States and won the very next week at Torrey. He could do the same this week, in reverse, as he heads to Dubai for a European Tour event.
What his lost week here really illuminated, however, had little to do with backswing length or course setup or muscle size.
No, it is this: This is the new normal for Woods.
Yes, he still can summon occasional brilliance – after all, he has won eight events in the past 104 weeks, more than any other player – but he no longer appears capable of bringing his best stuff on a week-in, week-out basis.
• From 1997-2009, Woods finished outside the top 35 in an event just 18 times in 231 starts (7.8 percent).
• Since then (2010-14), he has finished worse than 35th in 15 of his 57 starts (26.3 percent).
It should be noted, of course, that he is older, missed time because of injuries and struggled, at least initially, to implement swing changes. But the fact remains: He’s become an increasingly erratic player.
Acceptance of this new world has been slow, and never was the widening divide between perception and reality more evident than in the recent 2013 Player of the Year voting by the Golf Writers Association of America.
Taking into account “global” success and not just on the PGA Tour, the scribes crowned media-friendly Adam Scott the winner for 2013 – by five votes over Woods – apparently swayed by the breakthrough major victory at the Masters and two late-season wins in Australia that came against Cottonelle-soft fields.
Woods, meanwhile, failed to add to his major haul but won five events in a season for the 10th time in his career. In the past two decades, only one player (Vijay Singh) has won five-plus events in a single year.
The slight apparently wasn’t lost on Woods, either.
“I think that people look at winning five times as, you know, it’s easy to do probably because I’ve done it, whatever it is, nine, 10 times,” he said last week. “I’ve played at a high level for a very long time, but it’s not easy to do. We as players understand it, but I think if you’re not out here competing all the time, you perceive it differently than we do.”
Actually underappreciating Woods, the greatest player of his generation – can you believe that?
Now, just like everyone else, Woods tastes success but, really, copes more often with the aches and pains, flaws and fears, frustrations and disappointments.
Yes, the professional landscape changes.
Games and bodies evolve.
And so, too, should our expectations for the game’s ultimate winner.