Tiger shows no signs of recent woes
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods and this place and this tournament get along like Don Draper and Nicorette. Woods can't make a move here without bumping into a bad memory.
The Players Championship is where Woods lasted exactly nine holes a year ago before limping off the course after a beyond-embarrassing 6-over-par 42. He didn't play again for another three months.
It's where he called it quits with a neck injury after seven holes of the final round in 2010.
And this same TPC Sawgrass clubhouse is where Woods delivered his humbling and, don't kid yourself, humiliating public mea culpa in 2010 after a bucketful of marital transgressions. If it wasn't the low point of his professional and personal life, it was close.
Woods hasn't won the Players since 2001. He has one top-10 finish here in the past 10 years, semi-gagged away the 2009 title and has a two-year streak of WDs going. It isn't always his happy place.
"Well, it's either I've done really well or I haven't," said Woods on Tuesday.
The Really Well: the 1994 U.S. Amateur ... a T-10 in 1999, second place in 2000 ... the win in 2001 ... eighth place in 2009.
The Really Haven't: everything else.
Woods drove up from his Jupiter compound early Tuesday afternoon, did his presser, went out for a session on the practice range and then played nine holes. If there was any residual effect from his recent crash-and-burn at Quail Hollow (he missed the cut, only his eighth ever as a pro) or his T-40 at the Masters, Woods didn't show it. He had the smiley face working.
Now compare that to a year ago, when Woods arrived at the Players with a bad knee, bad Achilles and bad swing. He had gone a month without playing a full round and hadn't hit a range ball until three days before the tournament started.
"I had a few issues going on physically there," said Woods. "I was wondering whether I should have played, and because this is a big event I tried to tee it up, and it didn't work out."
Woods was an absolute mess back then. He stunk it up so bad that green flies began circling his swing. After that front-nine 42, critics and doubters -- and you could fill Camden Yards with them -- declared Woods done.
And they still are.
It is a national golf pastime. When in doubt, simply say that Woods, his swing and his psyche can't be fixed. Then recite the facts: He hasn't won a major since 2008 ... his left knee should be on the cover of Surgery Monthly ... he's on the wrong side of his 30s.
If you really want to grind a heel in his chest, then do what the BBC's Peter Alliss did recently, telling reporters that Woods' golfing brain "is completely addled ... he's gone."
Or you can go a tiny bit softer, as six-time major winner Nick Faldo did during a Tuesday Golf Channel/NBC conference call. Faldo said Woods lacks "self-belief, the self-confidence that he obviously had, the Tiger of old, simple as that."
Or you can really go off the reservation, as Brandel Chamblee did on the same call. Chamblee's solution: "Simply, he needs to fire Sean [Foley, his swing coach], call Butch [Harmon, his former swing coach, pre-Hank Haney]. I think that would get it done right there. Fire Sean, call Butch. And I know he'll never do that, because he's letting his ego get in the way of common sense. He wants to prove people he's right. He would rather prove to people he's right than be right."
Chamblee assumes that Harmon would take him back. By all accounts, that's not going to happen. So let's return to the planet Earth for the rest of the discussion.
First of all, Woods' brain isn't addled. The neurons don't always fire correctly, but you don't win 14 majors by accident. And you don't win Bay Hill less than two months ago by accident.
Second, he doesn't suffer from a lack of confidence. If anything, he suffers from too much confidence. Woods thinks he can solve any golf problem by imposing his considerable will to the situation. Practice longer. Grind harder. Channel his inner Eldrick.
Third, Foley isn't going anywhere. Woods is committed to this third transformation of his swing. He won with Harmon's changes. He won with Haney's changes. By god, he'll win with Foley's changes.
"Guys, I've done this before," said Woods, almost amused by these latest questions. "I've been through this. Actually, a lot of you guys actually lived it with me, went through those periods where I wasn't quite where I wanted to be. I had some pretty good runs after that and this is no different."
But it is different in a way. The criticisms are more vocal and pointed. Some are legitimate. Others are a little too metaphysical, a little too heavy on looking into the soul of Tiger -- as if that were possible.
"I always find it interesting, since they're not in my head," said Woods. "They must have some kind of superpower I don't know about."
The problem with dismissing Woods is that he eventually figures things out. He is stubborn. He is prideful. But he has a Mensa golf IQ. And he also has a history of turning corners on his swing changes.
Will he win this week? Doubtful, but not because his mind has supposedly turned to mush. It will be because Tiger and this course usually don't get along.
"I still expect Tiger to come back and do some great things," said Rory McIlroy, No. 1 in the world rankings. "I mean, he's won this year, so he's definitely on the right track."
Yes, exactly. So maybe it's time for everyone to take two chill pills and see how this plays out. It's May, not December. Three majors still remain.
But if I have to choose between, Is he back? or Is he gone?, I'll lean hard toward McIlroy's prediction.
Bet a buck?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.