PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The 18th hole on the TPC Sawgrass is not nearly as daunting without wind, which was the case on a muggy Tuesday morning when Tiger Woods set up over the tee shot with a 3-wood in hand.
The ball never had a chance to stay dry.
It started down the left side with a severe hook and splashed down some 20 yards to the left of the water’s edge. With a mild curse under his breath, Woods asked his caddie for another ball.
It was his fifth ball in the water during nine holes of practice at The Players Championship.
He lost two in the water on the front nine the day before.
There have been flashes of brilliance, as always, but far more shots that hardly resemble golf from the world’s best player.
“It’s just a matter of … getting my mind where it needs to be,” Woods said. “And certainly, I’ve made a lot of adjustments in my life, and I’ve gone through a lot — a lot. Just trying to make sure I get everything organized so I can play.”
Woods is capable of making some form of history at just about any golf tournament, and The Players Championship is no exception. Only now, the question is whether Woods will miss the cut in consecutive tournaments for the first time in his career.
He didn’t just miss the cut last week at Quail Hollow, he missed it by a mile. With a 79 in the second round – his second-highest score in his career – Woods posted his highest 36-hole total (153) in 14 years on the PGA Tour.
Two days of practice this week did little to change the notion that his game – not to mention his head — is not in a good spot.
After three days of rampant speculation that he would ditch his swing coach, Woods said that nothing has changed with Hank Haney, who was not at Sawgrass. Haney rarely goes to tournaments outside the majors.
“I’m still working with him, yeah,” Woods said.
How did he tie for fourth at Augusta National in his first tournament in five months, then miss the cut by eight shots in his next start?
Woods has hit into the trees even during good times. The surprise was the mental mistakes he made, whether it was failing to leave a chip shot below the hole, or powering putts when he should know how fast the green is running.
Woods said it’s getting better, perhaps because “it couldn’t get any worse.”
Physical or mental?
“All of the above,” he said. “Didn’t hit the ball very good, didn’t think myself around the golf course very well, and didn’t putt well, didn’t chip well. I teed up the ball well. I didn’t have any balls fall off tees. It just kind of got worse from there.”
The Players Stadium Course is not much of a tonic.
While he won The Players Championship in 2001, this is the only tournament where Woods has finished out of the top 20 at least five times. A year ago, he was in the final group, five shots behind, and was out of hunt at the turn. He wound up eighth.
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.”