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Monday, May 10, 2010
Updated: May 11, 3:44 PM ET
Woods' golf journey an uphill battle

By Kevin Maguire
ESPN.com

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. -- When asked if he thinks he can win a particular event, Tiger Woods routinely answers that he expects victory every time he tees it up.

Is that realistic these days given everything that has gone on in Woods' life?

The simple answer is no.

With a mental game that he said is "not where I would like to have it," Woods admitted Monday that he's struggling to keep everything together with his well-documented off-the-course struggles.

Add to that swing mechanics that are being sliced and diced from every corner of the golfing world and that show myriad reasons for his woes in his past two tournaments. For good measure, toss in a neck injury that could have serious implications on not just winning tournaments, but even being able to make it to the first tee.

The combination of all those factors leaves Woods likely to surrender his No. 1 world ranking sooner rather than later. It's simple math. If you don't play, you don't earn world ranking points. The question starts to become more of a "when" than an "if" scenario that someone will overtake him.

At the Players Championship, Phil Mickelson was within striking distance of achieving his first career No. 1 ranking until a final-round 74 derailed those efforts. With Woods possibly on the shelf in the upcoming weeks and Lefty playing a great stretch of golf dating back to the Masters, with finishes of 1, 2 and T-17, Mickelson -- or possibly one of his peers -- appears poised to reach the top of the mountain for the first time in his career.

Whenever Woods does get back inside the ropes, can he still be that guy who steps on the throats of entire fields at PGA Tour events and crushes them with his will? Absolutely. But if the neck injury that forced him to withdraw from the Players Championship on Sunday is even remotely serious, the practice regimen that Woods is so famous for might not even kick into first gear. And it's that focus on getting his swing in shape that will be needed to shake the competitive rust off his game.

On Monday at Aronimink Golf Club, the two-year temporary host course for the AT&T National that benefits Woods' foundation, reporters asked him to look into his crystal ball about when we will next see him on a golf course. All inquiries were deftly kicked aside in favor of waiting for more information from his doctors once he gets an MRI done back home in Orlando. It's that uncertainty which could lead to an end of Tiger's reign of 259 straight weeks as the No. 1-ranked player in the world.

When Woods does return, his 2010 golfing résumé will include a T-4 at the Masters, a missed cut at the Quail Hollow Championship and a WD at the Players Championship. Knowing what we know now about his injury, the showing at Augusta seems even more impressive than at first blush. That wild week in Georgia appears to be more the exception than the rule, though.

The MC at Quail Hollow can easily be written off; Woods has failed to reach the weekend just six times in his professional career. That leaves us with the Players, where we saw Tiger struggling through injury while on at least two occasions having to hit a wood into the green at a par-4. Despite the rough patches, Woods was still able to pull off some nice stretches of golf: He put together four birdies in five holes -- sandwiched around a double bogey -- in Round 2.

So which of these three tournaments will most likely reflect the caliber of player we could see in the coming months? The real answer is a combination of the three.

"Still got a lot of work to do, and a lot of it is I can't make the same moves as I could before because my neck is not allowing me to do that," Woods said. "I need to get organized. I need to get healthy in order for me to swing the club properly."

Yes, health is a complex concept. Woods needs more than just his body back in shape if he plans on raising more trophies.

Kevin Maguire is the senior golf editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Kevin.Maguire@espn.com.