Don't discount Tiger's game just yet

May, 4, 2010
05/04/10
6:19
AM ET

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It was late afternoon here at PGA Tour headquarters, home to this week's Players Championship. In the shadow of the monstrous TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, golf's newest "next Tiger Woods" -- aka Rory McIlroy -- bounded down a flight of steps toward the practice green. At that precise moment, the real McCoy -- Woods himself -- zoomed by in a cart, headed in the opposite direction.

Sometimes metaphors have to be crafted out of thin air, developed through inspiration, motivation and perspiration. Other times they pass right before our eyes.

On the eve of last week's Kentucky Derby, golf's preeminent thoroughbred looked like he was ready for the glue factory, as Woods stumbled to the halfway point at the Quail Hollow Championship, posting rounds of 74-79 to miss the cut for just the sixth time in 241 starts as a PGA Tour professional.

Instead, it was McIlroy, all 20 years and 363 days of him, who burst into the lead down the stretch, shooting a 10-under 62 to win by a few furlongs. It just happened to come on the same day that Ryo Ishikawa, two years younger, posted a 58 to win convincingly in his native Japan while long-bombing Alvaro Quiros, 27, also prevailed in his home country of Spain.

This string of events was referred to with such optimistic descriptions as "landmark," "watershed" and "groundbreaking" -- and it isn't without coincidence that each came while the game's No. 1-ranked player was at home, enjoying a little couch time on a previously unscheduled day off from the office.

Now that the dust has settled from those performances, there are plenty of questions remaining in regard to Woods' game. He addressed many of them during a Tuesday interview session.

• What's the state of your game?
"Well, it's getting better, no doubt. It couldn't get any worse."

• Were the errors more physical or mental?
"All of the above."

• Emotionally, is this the low point of your career?
"Yes, definitely."

• Has that impacted your golf swing?
"Absolutely."

It should come as little surprise that Woods' on-course issues are the result of mental, emotional and psychological problems as much as physical, tangible and technical ones. We shouldn't be so oblivious as to fail to understand that there are indeed issues right now, too.

Yes, this is a man who has compiled 71 career victories in 15 years. Yes, he owns 14 major championships. Yes, he's been No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for 258 consecutive weeks. And yes, he even finished in a share of fourth place at last month's Masters in his return from a highly publicized personal scandal and ensuing rehabilitation.

There are some obvious problems with his game, though. Many of 'em, in fact. Woods produced what he referred to as a "two-way miss" in the opening round at Quail Hollow, then backed it up with an uncharacteristically poor chipping and putting performance in Round 2.

It appears some of those things have carried over to this week so far, as well.

Rod Pampling, who along with Jay Haas played a practice round with Tiger here Monday, shared his thoughts on Woods' performance three days before the start of the tournament.

"He could have been better, but he said he's still working on stuff," Pampling said. "There's some rust there, but I'm sure he'll redeem himself pretty well this week."

Let's not be so certain.

On Tuesday, Woods played the back nine holes here ... and hit a total of five shots in the water. Such a performance might not conjure images of Angelo Spagnolo, who once captured a "worst golfer" crown by taking a 63-over 66 on the treacherous 17th hole. But it also fails to remind us of the man who has dominated the game for so long.

Tiger's record in weeks coming off a missed cut would be a career for many other pros. In his last four occasions, he has never finished outside of third place, including a win at last year's Buick Open after failing to reach the weekend at the Open Championship.

And yet, his record at the Players Championship has been less than stellar. Since winning this event for the only time in 2001, Woods owns just a single top-10 finish.

If there's one nugget that puts this fact into perspective, it's this: Craig Perks has more recently won a Players title -- and he's retired and working as a television analyst.

If Woods finishes outside the top five this week and Phil Mickelson wins for the second time in four years here, Tiger would fall from the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in a half-decade.

Meanwhile, Woods will attempt to scratch and claw his way back into relevance on the weekend at an upper-level event, all while the next generation gains momentum. It would be nearsighted to call last Sunday an epic turning point just yet, a symbolic -- if not literal -- changing of the guard in the game's most elite ranks.

After all, only time will tell if such a prediction will come to fruition. It would be pure folly to consider this the beginning of the end for Woods among golf's upper echelon, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him struggle yet again this week.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Senior Golf Writer

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