In his last event, Tiger Woods withdrew in the final round of the Players with a neck injury.
Robert Beck/SI
Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Since our hero/villain last completed a regulation, 72-hole tournament on April 11 (Masters, fourth place), he has missed the cut by a mile (Quail Hollow, 74-79), quit in the middle of the final round with neck pain (Players Championship), and been left by his coach, Hank Haney, if not yet his wife, Elin.

There have been as many reports about his imperiled No. 1 ranking as his tortured personal life, and we've even seized on a totally Tiger-free leitmotif for the 2010 season, in case everything continues to go wrong for Woods: the rise of the 20-somethings.

But the big question remains: When will Tiger Woods start playing like Tiger Woods again? Or like Jack Nicklaus? Heck, at this point we'd take a passable Tom Lehman impression.

With the U.S. Open just two weeks away, Woods gets another chance to find his game at this week's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.

He will go off the first tee with Jason Bohn and Steve Stricker at 12:44 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, and he could not ask for a better 18 holes to begin to build confidence. He's won the Memorial four times, most recently with a Sunday 65 to nip Jim Furyk in '09.

Phil Mickelson, whose best finish at the Memorial is a tie for fourth place in 2006, will try to rebound from a missed cut last week; Robert Allenby plays for the first time since his runner-up at the Players Championship; and former Memorial winners Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry also headline a deep field.

Although it pales in comparison to the Tour's offering, the Euro Tour features the Wales Open, notable mostly for the fact that it will be played at the site of the 2010 Ryder Cup, Celtic Manor.

Madrid Masters winner Luke Donald leads several Ryder Cup wannabes — Ross Fisher, Martin Kaymer, Alvaro Quiros — hoping to impress captain Colin Montgomerie.

And that's all you need to know about that, because the golf news this week will focus squarely on the game's lost superstar (Woods), the man who would be king (Mickelson), and the sage voice of reason as played by the wizened old tourney host, Nicklaus. The Cliffs Notes from Jack's press conference Tuesday: He still thinks Woods will eclipse his 18 professional majors.

If Woods is to win the U.S. Open, though, he had better start with a decent showing this week. That's likely, if the past is any indication. Why are Woods and Muirfield Village such a good fit?

"It's a lot wider in the fairways," Lucas Glover said, when asked Tuesday to compare the course to a typical U.S. Open track. "But the greens are more like in Augusta. You can be aggressive off the tee, then you've got to be careful around the greens here."

Historically, anyway, no one did that better than Woods. He is only 34, so it seems inconceivable that he would be past his prime. But the fact remains he's playing like it. He hit a flop shot into a water hazard at Quail Hollow. He never got into contention at TPC Sawgrass and then abruptly withdrew with the neck injury. Days after reporting he was 100% physically, he said that he'd actually been in pain since before the Masters.

Ford used to try to sell cars based partly on an advertising campaign that asked, "What will Phil do next?" But that's so 2004. The question in 2010 is, "What will Tiger say next?" Based on the last six months, you have to wonder what bombshell might be just around the corner. Perhaps this week we'll find out his left knee is being held together with sawdust, Play-Doh and prayer.

Tiger's on-course failures, at least, have come with built-in excuses. His Masters performance, though uneven, was admirable considering how little he'd played. (Only Tiger himself remained unimpressed.) His shabby play in Charlotte was chalked up to rust and mental disequilibrium, and Tiger has never much liked Sawgrass even with a healthy neck.

But the excuses are about to end because Woods now brings his game to two places where he has had such outrageous success that he will have nowhere to hide in the event of another meltdown. He is the only four-time winner of the Memorial, and his highlight reel at Muirfield Village is regular viewing on the Golf Channel.

Then there's Pebble Beach, which will host the Open for the first time since 2000, when Woods made seemingly every putt he looked at and won by 15 strokes.

If Woods can't contend at either venue, and then falters at the British Open at St. Andrews — another of his favorite courses—then what are we to make of that? The feeling in golf at the moment is that we are simply waiting for Woods to rediscover his mojo and for order to be restored. But what if it never happens? What if he's taken the game as far as he can take it?

Although we might not admit it, that unsettling question has prompted many of us to shift our attention to, if not yet tennis, at least to the re-energized Champions Tour, and other, secondary storylines on the PGA Tour.

Chief among these is the aforementioned youth angle, what with the fireworks by, among others, Rory McIlroy, 21. He'll play the Memorial this week and is looking to atone for two weeks of lackluster play after his maiden victory at Quail Hollow.

Then, of course, there's Mickelson, who is always a great story until he shows up someplace without his game, which happened at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial last week. Needing a win to take the No. 1 ranking for the first time, Mickelson looked nothing like the guy who won his third Masters and finished second to McIlroy at Quail Hollow.

This has led to much speculation that to feel and perform his best, Phil, much like TV golf ratings, the stock market and IMG's Mark Steinberg, needs Tiger to be in good working order.

At times like these, that is not a comforting thought. In any event, Mickelson can pass Woods atop the ranking this week, and as Nicklaus said, "That should be interesting" to watch.

• On other tours, Mark McNulty's become Tiger Woods — recent knee-replacement surgery will prevent McNulty from defending his title at the Champions Tour's Principal Charity Classic at Glen Oaks C.C. in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Nick Price, who lost a sudden-death playoff at last year's Classic, is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Senior PGA in Denver. Mark O'Meara finished fourth in Denver and is still looking for his first win on the senior circuit.

The favorite, though, may be Corey Pavin, who last week proved he can still play with the younger crowd when he tied for seventh place at Colonial.

• On the Nationwide tour, Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams plays tournament host at the Melwood Prince George's County Open at the University of Maryland Golf Course in College Park.

 

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