SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA | He said he’s not looking back. Tiger Woods isn’t. However, the rest of us are.
We’re remembering the Tiger who used to be, not the one who is. We’re wondering when the new Tiger will again be the old Tiger. Or wondering if the new Tiger ever again will be the old Tiger.
We learned through time never to underestimate Tiger Woods, learned how he could win anywhere, win on any occasion, even win on one leg. The man was amazing. Now, he’s simply bewildering.
He says he understands. “It takes reps under competition,” was the explanation of a new swing, not yet a reliable swing.
It’s the rest of us who don’t understand.
“I’ve been through this before,” said Tiger. He was standing near the 18th green at Torrey Pines, a course which previously as much belonged to him as if he’d taken out a lease.
He had just shot his second consecutive over-par round, a 3-over 75, Sunday on the South Course, where until the day before he hadn’t been worse than even par for 21 straight rounds in PGA Tour events, the Buick, then the Farmers.
He had just finished someplace below the top 40. He had just been beaten by an amateur from a local prep school, Anthony Paolucci.
“I’m just hitting it,” said Tiger. Hitting it into bunkers – and twice in the second round leaving it in the bunker. Hitting it into rough that, if not as long as when the U.S. Open was held at Torrey in 2008, the one Tiger won, still penalized. Hitting often where he didn’t want to hit it.
The first tournament of 2011 for Woods, a chance to step away from a year when there was a divorce and for the first time since he was in high school, no victories. A chance to find out whether the changes to his swing instituted by teacher Sean Foley had taken effect.
And for the PGA Tour, on this weekend before Super Bowl week, a chance with Tiger, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson in the field, to get the attention and TV ratings it so dearly desires. That grouping for the first two rounds, Woods, his U.S. Open competitor Rocco Mediate and Anthony Kim – you think it was a random selection by the computer?
Woods’ selection of Foley to revise a swing in which Tiger no longer felt comfortable was anything but random. They’ve been working together maybe seven months now. Long enough Tiger insists to grasp what he should be doing. Not long enough for Tiger consistently to do what he should be doing.
The first two rounds, Woods had 3-under 69s. He was high on the board. The last two rounds, Woods had 74-75. The final day, he started well. Then …
“I hit it as just as pure as can be,” said Woods of the opening holes Sunday. He turned 35 a month ago. He should be a star until his early 40s. Should.
“And then,” he mused about the round, “it progressively got worse as the day went on. I hit so many good putts that didn’t go in and, consequently, probably one of the worst scores at 3 over.
“I have some work to do. There’s no doubt about that. I have a week to get ready.”
A week until his next tournament, in Dubai. After that, presumably the Accenture Match Play. “Yeah,” he agreed, not trying to be sarcastic, “I’m definitely playing in the future.”
But how well? There’s a different release in his swing, Woods said, different from the one taught by Hank Haney, somewhat different from the one taught by Butch Harmon. The driver and the wedge and the putter all are swung with the same stroke.
Someone asked if he were tempted to backslide, do what is comfortable as opposed to what is correct.
“Yeah,” conceded Woods, “but how else are you going to get better? You’ve got to do it. It’s one of those things where I don’t know where the end is. You never know where the end is until you’re done with your playing career.”
After the confessions of marital infidelities, after the rehab, after the rips by columnists and the jokes by late-night TV hosts, Tiger still remains golf’s single most prominent individual.
Fans complain there’s too much Tiger, on the tube, in stories. But like moths to a flame they fly to the man. First-day attendance at the 2011 Farmers with Woods was 7,000 higher than first-day attendance of the 2010 Farmers without Woods.
Indeed, he thought he would play better this first tournament. “I can do it on the range,” he said, sounding like a 16-handicapper, “but it’s a little different when you’ve got to bring it out here and I’ve got to shape shots.
“I’m committed to what I am doing, and I’m not looking back.”
If he doesn’t, he’ll never know how far he’s gone.