Adding to the memories is that this is the second time Woods has come to Sawgrass this year. The other was on Feb. 19 to make a public apology to family and friends for his serial infidelity. He never looked more uncomfortable that day in the Sunset Room of the clubhouse for a 13 1/2-minute statement that was televised worldwide.
Emotionally, he compared the depths of his emotions to four years ago, when his father died after a long battle with cancer. Woods took nine weeks off, then returned to the U.S. Open and missed the cut for the first time in a major.
Among the differences: After missing the cut, Woods didn’t finish worse than second in a stroke-play tournament for the next seven months. It’s hard to envision such a performance now, not with seven balls in the water over his last 18 holes, even if it is just practice.
And if he’s not feeling the pressure from within, there suddenly is an outside force – Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
For the first time since the 1997 Masters that Woods won by a record 12 shots, he is no longer the outright favorite by British bookmaker William Hills. Woods and Mickelson are joint favorites at 7-to-1.
Mickelson has a chance for the first time in his career to rise to No. 1 in the world if he wins The Players Championship, which he did in 2007, and Woods finishes out of the top five.
Mickelson believes in his own abilities. He is not so quick to dismiss those of the guy he has been chasing for more than a dozen years.
“I have seen him hit shots that I don’t know if anybody else in the world could ever possibly hit,” Mickelson said. “He is an incredible player and talent, and he has one of the most impressive record – if not the most impressive record – in the history of the game. I won’t ever underestimate him.
“Regardless of what he did last week, know the type of competitor he is, I expect him to come back and be the Tiger that we are used to seeing on the golf course.”
Despite 82 victories worldwide, including 14 majors, Woods has rarely looked this vulnerable.
It sounds as though he feels that way, too.
“I’ve been trying to make life adjustments and make life changes,” he said. “A lot of people, when they go through treatment, they’re able to make these adjustments in anonymity. I’m not. And that makes it a lot more difficult.”