Once out of contention, Tiger mailed it in

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That wasn't Tiger Woods. Couldn't have been. I'm not buying it.

It was an impostor. A fake. A fraud. Maybe one of those Tiger impersonators who gets paid big bucks to show up at outings simply because he sorta looks like the guy.

Hey, the signs are there. Before the start of this Quail Hollow Championship, Woods lamented the fact that "there's paparazzi everywhere" in his life. So perhaps in an effort to avoid the public eye, he handed over one of those fancy swoosh-adorned polo shirts and his trusty set of sticks and let some other dude play the role of a lifetime.

There's no other way to explain rounds of 74-79 that left him 8 strokes off the cut line -- the worst 36-hole score of his career, his first missed cut at a non-major in half a decade.

Or is there?

In the past six months, the world has come to know a side of Woods once thought impossible -- or at the very least, highly unlikely. Before his personal life was shrouded in scandal, though, before his name became synonymous with tabloid copy, Tiger was a golfer. Damn good one, too. Won 14 major championships. Put a kung fu grip on the world's No. 1 ranking and made boatloads of money. Yachtloads, actually.

So any apparent demise in his professional career should come as an even greater surprise than those previously private affairs. That's especially true after a T-4 result in his return to competition at the Masters Tournament three weeks ago. After all, it was assumed the worst of the rust and the spectacle and the nerves would seep out at Augusta National. It would all be downhill from there, right?


Instead, we witnessed a Woods in Friday's second round who had never before surfaced on the golf course.

The day started innocuously enough, as he drove his ball into the first fairway, fired an approach onto the green and sank his birdie putt. It ended nearly five hours later, with Tiger walking off the final hole with a big smile on his face, the effect of relief that it was over rather than any sort of joy.

In between, the round was unlike any other since he turned pro in 1996. Woods found just two of 14 fairways, endured a four-putt and made back-to-back double-bogeys for just the third time ever. Essentially, he looked like some guy just trying to break 80 -- which he did. Barely.

That might be a source of pride for your average single-digit handicapper, but for a guy who first reached that milestone at the age of 8, it's more a source of embarrassment than anything else.

You can tell from his post-round comments: "I didn't play well. … My short game was terrible. I putted bad. … It's frustrating. I didn't have much. … It is what it is. Whatever it was, it wasn't good enough."

Most surprisingly was that, for the first time ever, Woods quit. Gave up. Put a stamp on it and mailed it in. No, he didn't pull a John Daly and walk off the course, but his actions and body language on the last stretch of holes exposed a man who knew he wasn't going to be competing on the weekend and simply didn't care where his next shot was going.

All of which begs the question: Is this new version of Tiger -- the one who emerged with an image permanently scarred from such a scandal -- less dominant, less motivated and less proficient than the previous model?

There are those who will be preaching that the sky is falling in TigerLand after this performance, but these musings should come with a warning label. I'm more inclined to believe this will go down simply as a blip on the radar screen than as the beginning of the end. If nothing else, though, I'm willing to table such discussions until a further time, until we have a greater body of work from which to analyze.

That will come soon enough, as Woods won't have much time to wallow in his sorrow. Next week, he will tee it up once again at the Players Championship, a tournament where only once he has been -- to borrow a phrase that became part of the golfing vernacular that week -- "better than most," hoisting the trophy in 2001.

Tiger Woods' road to success is no longer paved with gold. In fact, it might become a bumpy journey.

After he flashed that smile for the first time while leaving the final green, after his post-round media obligations, Woods placed his clubs in the trunk of his SUV, slammed it shut and sat down in the backseat.

Pulling out of the Quail Hollow players' parking lot, the driver backed over an orange traffic cone, temporarily delaying their route out of town. It seemed a fitting conclusion to an un-Tiger-like performance that appeared stuck in reverse for two days.

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