CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tiger Woods was sweating in his sharp Nike outfit, searching for a swing to hold onto.
“Let’s see a Bubba Watson,” a fan said as Woods’s ball rested in the pine needles left of the fifth green.
“Let’s see a Tiger Woods of 2008,” another fan countered.
They saw neither. It’s 2012 in the world of golf, and now it has come to this. Woods enters a golf tournament and all scenarios are in play. A withdrawal at Doral. A win at Bay Hill. A tie for 40th at the Masters.
A missed cut at the Wells Fargo Championship.
After he two-putted for par from 50 feet on Quail Hollow’s ninth hole Friday, Woods was going home for the weekend, done in by all aspects of his game.
It was the first time Woods had missed back-to-back cuts at the same event. In 2010, he missed the cut here by eight shots. (Last year, he didn’t play because of the leg injury he sustained at the Masters).
After his choppy performance at Augusta last month, Woods had much at stake at the Wells Fargo Championship. He’d spent the interim working on posture issues in his setup. Those issues followed him to Quail Hollow, where he deposited shots into rough and pine straw and even missed a four-foot birdie putt on No. 8.
Woods revealed after the round that he still isn’t comfortable with his new swing and that when he tries to feel comfortable, old habits creep in.
“It all has to do with my setup,” Woods said. “If I get over the ball and I feel uncomfortable, I hit it great. I get out there and I want to feel comfortable and I follow my old stuff and hit it awful.”
Why is he still uncomfortable with his new swing at times, nearly two years after starting with swing teacher Sean Foley?
“If you think about it, with Butch [Harmon] it took me two years and with Hank [Haney] it too me almost two years before old patterns are out. I played really well at the ’97 Masters and I didn’t really do anything [with a new swing] until May of ’99. It takes time to get rid of old patterns. It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions of golf balls, but eventually it comes around. I’ve had my share of successes. I know it’s coming.”
Said Geoff Ogilvy, who played with Woods: “If he tells you he’s close, I think he’s actually right, but he has to putt better.”
At Bay Hill, Woods won by five shots, pulling away from the field in a performance that felt vintage. At the Masters, Woods looked lost on the tee.
At Quail Hollow, he remained that way. The nadir of his round came on the par-5 fifth hole, where he went for the green in two and rifled his iron shot over the gallery and into the trees.
From there, pandemonium ensued. A gallery of hundreds searched to find Woods’s ball. They looked high among tree branches and low among pine needles.
Woods was pacing back and forth, looking for his ball, asking fans if they’d seen it.
Mark Russell, a PGA Tour rules official, walked up to Woods, who explained the situation.
“The gentleman here in the yellow said he saw the ball rolling on the ground,” Woods said.
“Did anybody else see the ball?” Russell asked the crowd. “Did anybody see it at rest?”
“The ball came here,” a fan explained. “Then 12 people came over and went that way.”
Another fan agreed.
Russell then said, “It sounds to me like somebody picked it up.”
Woods was given a free drop in the pine needles, and that’s when one fan asked for him to channel Watson and another begged him to channel his former self.
Woods had no magic. He pitched to 27 feet and two-putted for par.
Even after the free drop, Woods hit pedestrian shots on his final four holes. On the par-5 seventh hole he pulled his tee shot into a poor lie on a spit of rough next a bunker. After pitching into the fairway, his third shot with a wedge was short of the green and came to rest on a stone wall in front of the water. Woods turned his putter 90 degrees and popped a chip with the toe of the club. It came up 15 feet short, but he made the putt for par.
On the 347-yard par 4 eighth hole, Woods nearly drove the green, sent a pitch shot four feet below the hole and rammed the birdie putt off the right lip.
After a drive into the rough on No. 9 and an approach shot 50 feet short of the hole, Woods dropped his head and looked down.
There were murmurs in the gallery. One topic dominated the conversation.
Tiger Woods was going home.