Tiger prowls on a new path

Tiger prowls on a new path

Bogged down by scandals and injuries, Woods searches for his old self

And eventually, it became a walk to the next bunker, to the next drop area beside a pond or to the next shadowy spot in the woods – all in search of a golf ball that
ignored his will.

There appeared to be little emotion in his eyes – when you could see them. His hat was pulled down across his eyebrows, lifted only occasionally to wipe sweat from his face. Woods kept on the move, rarely making eye contact or speaking with his playing partners, Padraig Harrington and Davis Love III.

The fans, at least for a while, stuck with him, trying to buoy his spirits.  Woods stared down at his shoes and walked faster, and played faster, too, barely pausing over some shots. The 2011 PGA Championship was going by him in a blur.

“You can still do it,” a spectator called to Woods as he approached the 11th tee.  It was at the 11th that Woods hit his ball from a bunker on the right side of the fairway to a bunker on the left side of the green and from there knocked his ball into the pond back on the right side of the hole.

Woods never saw that shot trickle into the water. Like an ultimate insult, his wedge lifted sand into his eyes. Blinded and turning away, he reached for a towel and was handed one by his caddie/friend Bryon Bell. When Woods cleared his eyes, he looked across the green in disbelief.

Soon, the fans grew more quiet around Woods. It seemed almost cruel, or certainly disingenuous, to pretend Woods could make something positive of the day. He would finish Friday’s second round with a three-over-par 73, which when coupled with the 77 he shot in the first round left Woods at 10-over par for the tournament.

That left him on the wrong side of the cut (by six strokes), something that had only happened twice previously since he became a professional in 1996. Five of the club pros in the field had a better two-round score than Woods. “I thought I could come in here and play the last couple of weeks and get it done somehow,” he said. “Unfortunately, I need some work.”

It has become routine lately for people to say that the ruinous marital scandal and collapse of his game has not changed Woods in essential ways. But after he missed the cut in a major, and sometimes played embarrassing golf, he was making jokes about it.

Some things have changed significantly. It is possible Woods will not play in a full-field PGA Tour event for nearly six months. Since he has indicated he will not play in next week’s Wyndham Championship in North Carolina, he cannot qualify for the post-season FedEx Cup play-offs. The debacle at the Atlanta Athletic Club did not change his immediate plans.

Asked if he would be off until November when he was expected to play in a non-Tour Australian event, Woods nodded, broke into a wide smile and said: “Correct. That’s what it’s going to be. I’ve got some time off again.”

There was no one place, no one moment when Woods lost it, when it became apparent that he was not going to mount the miraculous comeback he needed to make the cut. But things never looked certain or at ease in the Woods camp even before his round began. On the range warming up, he was hitting balls with his swing coach, Sean Foley, standing behind him. Every one or two swings, Foley would step forward and the two would discuss some portion of Woods’ technique, with Foley sometimes mimicking a position and Woods trying to re-create it as he nodded his head.

It may all be part of the process of changing his swing, which is what Woods likes to say, but an animated discussion about hand and body positions 20 minutes before he was about to tee off in a major championship hardly seemed reassuring, or commonplace.

On the course, Woods was often calculating his own yardages, or doing so in tandem with Bell, and he hit several shots over greens.  But Woods insisted he was on the right track in his makeover. He just needed more practice at it. He remained committed to his new path.

“It’s just a matter of doing the work,” he said. “I’ve missed two major championships to injury and missed the cut in another one. So right now, I just need to go out and do my work.”

With that, he turned and ascended a staircase toward the clubhouse. Fans streaming away from the 18th green spotted him and stopped to call his name. They got louder as he reached the top step. Woods put his head down, walked through an open door and disappeared.

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