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Tiger's game gets a serious reality check at Quail Hollow

Tiger Woods, 2010 Quail Hollow, Round 2
Mike Ehrmann/SI
Tiger Woods missed the cut for only the sixth time in his career.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Before the Masters began, Tiger Woods talked about changing his behavior on the golf course. This is not what he had in mind.

Woods committed early to the Quail Hollow Championship, and he left early too. A stunning 79 in Friday's second round resulted in a missed cut, and he missed it badly. That's a rare event for Woods, who had missed only five cuts in 240 tournaments.

If Woods was hoping that playing in PGA Tour events again would speed the process of getting his life back to something resembling normalcy, his 74-79 performance and tie for 141st at Quail Hollow didn't help. All it did was reinforce the view that his game is in tatters.

You could say the back nine didn't agree with him — his score for two rounds there was 82, 10 over par, versus the 71 he shot on the front nine. But that doesn't reflect the truth, which is that he was an equal-opportunity bogeymaker.

In many ways, Woods picked up where he left off at Augusta National. If you remember his worst shots from the Masters weekend, well, that's pretty much how he played here. One key difference was that Quail Hollow has rough, unlike Augusta, and thick stands of trees, and Woods couldn't get away with badly errant drives like he did when he began the final round of the Masters by yanking his opening tee shot into the 9th fairway. At Quail Hollow, he was repeatedly on safari in the trees.

Quail Hollow provided Tiger with a reality check on the state of his game — both the technique of his swing and his mental approach. On Thursday he struggled with his swing but scrambled magnificently from the trees and bunkers, and even with two shots in the water, he salvaged a 74.

The second round was more troubling. His play on the final nine — three straight bogeys, back-to-back double bogeys — was indicative of bigger problems. Missing five-foot putts, stubbing a bunker shot and four-jacking (including three putts from four feet) weren't simple errors of technique, they stemmed from a lack of concentration.

And the last part of that sentence is notable because that's one thing we'd never seen out of Tiger. He never gives up, never gives in, never gives out and never gives anything away. Until Friday.

The debacle at the par-5 15th, when he tried to power in a four-footer for par and missed, then hastily pounded the comeback putt and watched it horseshoe around the cup and come out? He looked like a golfer who suddenly didn't care — he had a similar moment on the 14th green during the final round at Augusta — or worse, a golfer who wanted to punish himself. Don't laugh — every golfer has been there, done that.

Woods has no intention of telling us what's going on. "It is what it is," he said in a brief meeting with reporters after the 79. O.K., but what is it?

Asked what he was going to do, Tiger said he would practice a little and maybe turn on the TV this weekend "to watch the real players and see how it's done." It was a weak attempt at humor, but it was successful in its intent because it avoided the biggest question: What's Wrong With Tiger?

Maybe it's too early for that. The problem may simply be the result of his five-month layoff. But there are other possibilities. "I'm hitting the ball actually pretty decent," Woods said, "and I made three pretty bad mistakes around the greens that cost me."

He's in denial about his ballstriking. He hit only six of 28 fairways in two rounds, the lowest total of his career, and he has never looked more lost on a golf course.

Tiger tanked on Friday, coincidentally, after a reported heckling incident at the 10th hole, where one spectator shouted a setup line and another responded with the punch line, "That's what she said." One silly comment like that couldn't possibly get in the head of the toughest mental competitor golf has seen since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, could it?

This much is certain: Tiger has been different since his return. The fight had gone out of him on Friday afternoon. It may have begun to leave him when he joked after the opening round that he wasn't even going to the range to figure out what was wrong with his swing. "To hell with it," he said, drawing laughs.

At least he could laugh about it. On Friday he offered some lame excuses for his obvious lack of effort on a few shots late in the round. "At that point, I was just trying to stay out of Angel's way," he said of Cabrera, who finished a shot off the lead held by Billy Mayfair. "He's leading the golf tournament, and that's kind of what you're supposed to do. I was pretty calm because there's nothing you can do. I had to eagle out, but that's not going to happen."

The questions aren't going away. Tiger struggled mightily with his swing, but there was no sign of swing coach, Hank Haney, leading to speculation about their future as a team. At times Woods seems to favor his surgically repaired knee, and he carefully masks an occasional limp. Is that a factor in his play?

Has the scope of his extramarital affairs affected his legendary concentration, mental toughness and self-belief on the golf course? He seemed invincible once upon a time. Not now.

Then there's his putting. Tiger is only 34, but in a lot of ways he's an old 34. He has been playing elite-level competitive golf since he was a young teen, and in recent years his erratic long game has put immense pressure on his putter. He was considered by many to be the best putter in the game for most of the previous decade. Has that changed?

We don't know. No one even dares ask the big question or even think it: Is Tiger done?

That seems impossible. After all, the man was in a rehab program six weeks ago. Perhaps due to his marital circumstances, he rushed his return to golf. Maybe he just needs some reps, as he likes to call his practice time. Maybe all he needs is time. His future with his wife, his kids, his family are all up in the air, and no one would be human if he weren't unsettled about that.

Tiger isn't Superman. We knew that already, but here's the scary thing about what transpired over the last two days at Quail Hollow: He didn't look like Tiger Woods, either.

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