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Pondering Tiger's Torrey problems

1/26/2014 - Golf Tiger Woods

SAN DIEGO -- The scorecard can be cruel, the true way in which a golfer is judged, the number next to the name the basis for his being.

In that context, Tiger Woods will be viewed harshly for his work on Saturday.

His third-round 79 at the Farmers Insurance Open was shocking for its rarity as well as its locality.

For just the fifth time as a pro, Woods shot 79 or worse; and for just the fourth time in 14 PGA Tour events here, Woods failed to break par.

He nearly didn't break 80, needing a 10-foot par putt on his final hole to avoid the dreaded snowman for just the second time in his career. He had a stretch of seven holes that he played like you and me -- no pars, 9 over. And for the first time as a pro, Woods was the victim of the PGA Tour's Saturday "MDF", a provision known as "made cut, did not finish" that was added six years ago when too many players make the 36-hole cut.

You wonder if Woods even knew it existed.

He's missed just 10 cuts worldwide in his career, and the secondary "MDF" cut doesn't come into play often. And if he's making the cut, he's usually in the mix on the leaderboard.

Not this time. Woods can get a head start on his trip to the Middle East, where he will play in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, a European Tour event, next week.

That leaves the rest of us to speculate what went wrong, what it means.

With Woods, there has been so much greatness, so few failures, that poor rounds and poor tournaments typically become a bigger deal simply because they are so rare. The nature of golf suggests that Woods should have had far more days like this, far more lousy tournaments.

But he hasn't, so we rush to figure out the problem.

What happened over three days at Torrey Pines -- no birdies on the 12 par-5s he played? -- shouldn't be dismissed. Neither should it be viewed as a calamity.

"For him to come out and be completely out of sorts and mis-aligning shots ... hitting it left and right ... all of it looks very rusty," said CBS golf analyst and six-time major champion Nick Faldo.

Perhaps Sir Nick is onto something.

During a brief exchange of pleasantries during the Wednesday pro-am, Woods remarked that the holiday season and offseason was too short. His last competitive round had been Dec. 8 when he lost in a playoff to Zach Johnson at the World Challenge.

Judging by his performance, it's fair to wonder if that pro-am round was his first time playing 18 holes since that December defeat. Woods didn't say so, and downplayed talks that he was rusty.

But he also accompanied girlfriend Lindsey Vonn to France for the race in which the skier reinjured her knee; he has talked often about spending time with his kids, especially during the holidays, who are ages 6 and 4; and at age 38, he is seemingly less inclined to grind.

It is reasonable to suggest that there was very little golf being played during that stretch.

Excuses? Perhaps. But it is also the reality for a player who is in his 18th year as a pro, dealt with four knee surgeries and -- if you remember -- had back issues toward the end of 2013.

Woods rarely discusses such things in any detail, so you have to remember back to the Barclays, where a jolt in his back sent him to the ground after a swing in the final round. It kept him from hitting a single shot before the next tournament at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Woods barely practiced prior to the Tour Championship and had a lackluster tournament.

It is there where he suggested that, well, he was out of gas. "I'm tired," he said then. "It's just been a long, long grind."

Woods played just three tournaments the rest of the year, one being an exhibition event in the Presidents Cup. He contended in the other two. But in nearly four months' time, he played competitively just three times. Certainly some rust came into play this week.

And Torrey Pines, where he has eight victories including the 2008 U.S. Open, proved to be a place where you needed to be sharp. The rough has been deeper and thicker than usual. Woods missed fairways by a yard or two and paid the price. (He hit just 18 of 42 fairways, and only 30 of 54 greens.) His short game was spotty. Some good medium-range par putts saved him from being worse.

On Saturday, just five players shot in the 60s. The 36-hole lead was 10 under and it is just 8 under going into the final round. When Woods' round unraveled Saturday, he was 2 under par and in prime position to get to 3 under with a birdie at the 18th hole -- his ninth. Make a birdie there, get a couple more on the front side, and he's on the fringe of contention.

But he hit is approach in the water and went seven straight holes without a par.

Such things happen in golf -- just not to Woods.

"I don't' know what was going through his head, but it was really different to see him play like that," said playing partner Jhonattan Vegas, who shot 74. "You don't expect that out of him, but it happens to the best. He's human just like the rest of us."

The problem for Woods is, he set such a high standard so it is shocking when he does something that is simply part of everyday life for a touring golfer. It is amazing to think, for example, that he's missed just nine cuts on the PGA Tour, and just three in major championships. Phil Mickelson, the second-best player of Woods' generation, has missed 76 cuts. But Lefty is not judged the same way.

It is certainly fair to ask how this could have happened here. Woods had just three rounds over par at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open coming into this week. Two of them came in 2011, when he had his previous worst finish, a tie for 44th. The other was a 77 in 2002. He had never finished the tournament with an over-par total but finished his 2014 season debut T-80.

It almost came to be understood that he would perform well at Torrey, regardless of the circumstances. Perhaps that should put an end to the talk that all of his victories come at the same venues.

Last year, he missed the cut in his first tournament of the year in Abu Dhabi, then came back the following week to win at Torrey Pines. Who would be surprised if his poor performance is followed by a victory in the Middle East?

Next week it's the Emirates Golf Club, where he has two previous victories -- which means nothing in 2014 if you don't have your game.

You can bet Woods will be trying to find it between now and then. If not, we'll be again left to wonder what is going on.