AUGUSTA, Ga. — This week officially marks one full year without the Old Tiger. That’s one year of Tiger Woods traipsing around golf courses like any mere mortal — bemoaning wayward shots, benching uncooperative putters, sifting through clashing swing thoughts.
It’s also one year of not doing what made him the most famous athlete on the planet: winning.
Woods wobbles into the 2011 Masters in the strangest, most vulnerable state of his career. His circus-like return from scandal last year belongs in another category, because that spoke more to his personal travails and how the public would receive him (mostly warmly).
Now it’s all about why he can’t play golf like the Old Tiger.
He teed off Thursday morning at No. 7 in the world ranking (his lowest point since April 6, 1997), still winless since he resumed his career at Augusta National one year ago today. Now, when he talks about Jack Nicklaus’ magical mark of 18 major victories, it seems like he’s hoping to break the record, not expecting to break it.
Here’s one measure of where Woods stands these days: Other players suddenly are emboldened enough to go public with their skepticism.
“I don’t think he’ll finish in the top five,” ever-candid Englishman Ian Poulter said of Woods’ chances in the Masters. “The shots he was hitting (last month) at Doral, they were very inconsistent. You can’t afford to hit shots like that on this course and get away with it.”
This quote was relayed to Woods during his news conference Tuesday. It probably drove him batty, to hear another player openly question his skills, but Woods knows Poulter’s penchant for inviting attention and briefly played along.
“Poulter is always right, isn’t he?” Woods said, sparking laughter throughout the room. Then, asked about his chances to finish in the top five, he replied, “My whole idea is to try to win the tournament. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
He once succeeded with historic frequency, churning out 71 PGA Tour wins, including 14 majors. But he arrived in Augusta this week without a tour victory in his past 17 starts, dating to the BMW Championship in September 2009. Two months later, he won the Australian Masters.
Since then: nothing.
Forget about his much-scrutinized swing changes with new coach Sean Foley. Old Tiger chipped and putted better than any other player in the game, probably better than any other player ever. He saved par with numbing reliability. New Tiger is reliable only in his erratic play around the greens, a recipe for trouble at the Masters.
This lingering drought made for some fascinating exchanges during Tuesday’s media session. Woods insisted he can win this week, moments before insisting he still thinks he will eclipse Nicklaus’ “gold standard” of 18 majors.
The questions carried a sharper edge than ever, because never before has Woods gone this long without winning. One blunt reporter even asked if we’ve seen the best of Tiger Woods.
“No,” he replied, with an arctic stare.
Then, when the same reporter wondered if this was a dangerous statement, Woods said, “I believe in myself. That’s the whole idea: You can always become better.”
Woods has emerged from slumps before, and it’s pure folly to suggest he will not emerge from this one eventually. But the longer he goes without winning, the more the questions will multiply — whether or not Ian Poulter is involved.