Will We Ever See the Old Tiger Again?
Torrey Pines, which abuts the Pacific Ocean, is sacred ground to the Southern California native. He won here as a boy and likely can walk its two courses blindfolded without clonking any of its pines. He'd collected seven first-place checks here, including five in a row since 2005. And for his U.S. Open victory in 2008, when he prevailed on one knee, a plaque honors him at the South's first tee.
So the Torrey-as-Tiger-tonic talk picked up when Woods, winless since 2009, arrived here to launch his 2011 season.
Seventy-five touches of the ball later on Sunday, Woods was as bloodied as the San Diego residents who pay $50 to gouge this muni track.
The four-day total of 287 -- one-under par -- was his worst to start a PGA season.
Sunday, Tiger Woods signed a scorecard with nine 5s.
The golf gods then cried, rain drenching the remaining players and a pro-Tiger gallery.
Probably because there was already enough of his blood in the water for the other golfers to smell, Woods afterward was mostly smiles and happy talk.
He told us his woes owed solely to the vagaries of learning a retooled swing.
He acknowledged no decline in confidence and reminded us that when he reworked his swing in the mid-1990s, a dry spell gave way to dominance -- eventually.
"I've been through this road before," he said, and we know that's not wholly true. "It takes time. Unfortunately, I'm playing events and the golf course is not easy, especially this one. You've just go to be patient."
Did he expect better from himself when he arrived at Torrey on Wednesday?
"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."
At 35, he's coming off the worst year of his career and has never gone longer without winning a major. If he still has many years to catch Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 majors, including a Masters at age 46, he admitted he has a "lot of work to do" to get ready for Augusta.
When he's playing like Eldrick instead of Tiger, the PGA interests only the golf nerds.
Golf misses Tiger Woods, but his return looks tougher than his other comebacks from swing remodelings.
He's older now, and coming off knee surgery. But I wonder more about his psyche, and the psyches of his emboldened foes, than his body.
Even should he regain peak form, his imposing mental advantage will be less.
Consider the revelations of pitching star Trevor Hoffman, who dominated hitters for more than a decade as the closer for the San Diego Padres. Asked why he fared better with a save dangling than when the game was tied or his team led by four runs, Hoffman said it was the hitters -- not him -- who changed when the pressure heightened. "When there's a save on the line, the adrenaline can work against them," said the save king.
Hitters put Hoffman's first fastball into play, almost defensively, rather than risk the humiliation of looking stupid on his devastating changeup.
Likewise, many of Woods' contemporaries on the PGA Tour wilted at the prospect of dueling him on Sundays. Many were American pansies there to collect large checks, not win tournaments. They were unable to stand up to either Woods or, for that matter, the Europeans in the Ryder Cup.
Woods probably still doesn't need to worry about those guys, if he can get his game back.
But the youngsters on tour won't know any better. They've seen the mortal Tiger. They've heard the galleries' flagging cries of "Go Tiger" that Sunday were resigned pleas, more than cocky declarations. To the younger players, Woods is an old dude who used to be great. They're not much interested in his storied history. For now, neither is Tiger.
"I'm not looking back," he said. "I'm moving forward. That's what I have to do, and that's what I'm doing."