Conventional wisdom has always had it that Tiger Woods would rediscover his mojo on one of the golf courses where he made his legend, some place like Torrey Pines, Firestone, or, in the case of this week's Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Emirates Golf Club.
Woods has won this European tour event twice, in 2006 and '08, but the way his game looked in his 2011 debut two weeks ago, a third Dubai title for Woods seems unlikely at best. Heck, the title of Dubai's greatest golf course designer isn't even in play now that Tiger Woods Dubai has been shuttered due to Dubai's high-end real estate woes.
The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am will feature a lesser field than Dubai, but one that nonetheless includes Phil Mickelson, whose play (runner-up in San Diego, T29 in Phoenix) has been a nice surprise.
The Champions Tour will hold its first full-field event of 2011 as Bernhard Langer defends at the Allianz Championship at the Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Fla. — Langer's current hometown.
Win or lose, Woods will get most of the attention, as always. Is he finished? Injured? About to reinvent himself?
After losing a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge in December, Woods was expected to start this season anew, at least resembling the Woods who dominated for 13 years.
Alas, his T44 at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines was not that Woods. Worse, his ho-hum showing came on a course where he had won seven times as a pro. (Woods was also expected to start the year with a new bag sponsor, but that didn't happen, either.)
"Certainly it was frustrating that I didn't perform the way I know I could," Woods said Wednesday in Dubai. "But ... I've been here before. It takes time. I went through, as I said, a two-year period where I didn't do anything and a year-and-a-half period where I didn't do anything ... You don't make changes and just start winning a bunch of golf tournaments."
Woods has never finished out of the top five in Dubai, so another weak finish would be just as alarming. His new swing, under Sean Foley, may soon generate as much second-guessing as the old one.
GOLF Magazine Top 100 teacher Brady Riggs said in a Golf.com podcast last week that Foley's teachings may be a better fit for some of his other students, like Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose, whose swing DNA is unlike Tiger's natural action.
At least Riggs leaves open the possibility that the Tiger Woods Project might work. A friend of mine who played on the Champions tour, who calls himself one of Tiger's biggest fans, is less sanguine.
"Tiger's swing could turn into an Ian Baker-Finch or David Duval," he told me via e-mail. "I know the swing he has right now, and it creates fear over the ball (been there, done that). Look for another driving disaster this week. He is working on the wrong things, and I can't believe it. His swing is awful, and he knows it."
What exactly is Woods working on?
"We're trying to get the club more on plane and the face more square at the top," Foley told SI's Alan Shipnuck. "From there he can use his body more, his hands less. That'll lead to more consistency and more power."
Time will tell. Meanwhile the game is passing Woods by as he tinkers. That could be evident this week as he competes alongside the new No. 1, Lee Westwood, who was runner-up in Dubai last year, losing a playoff to Miguel Angel-Jimenez. The No. 2 player, Martin Kaymer (T4 in 2010), will complete a threesome that will stimulate interest but could serve as an unwanted reminder to Woods that his time has come and gone.
Kaymer would take over the top spot in the world with a win, or even a tie for second, depending on Westwood's play. But Kaymer, 26, will be playing in the same group as Woods for the first time in his career, and he sounded somewhat doe-eyed earlier this week.
"He's the best player in the game," Kaymer told the AP. "At the moment, Lee and me, we are No. 1 and 2. But in every golfer's mind, he is the best player in the world. And it would be fantastic if he can get back to where he was and then we challenge him."
At Torrey Pines, after he'd been throttled by playing partners like Jhonny Vegas and Brendan Steele, Woods admitted the obvious, that he still had a lot of work to do. He means so much to golf that even his fellow touring pros hope that he does it soon, and that it yields fruit.
In the interim, you have to sort of feel for Foley. If Woods starts winning again, the Canadian guru will be a genius. Absent a Woods revival, not so much. It's a fickle business, trying to coax the fallen to be great again. Eminem may have better luck resurrecting Chrysler.
Johnson, Mickelson favorites at Pebble
A three-time winner at the AT&T, Mickelson has rediscovered his swagger, which may be one reason why more people are watching the action at home. Golf Channel says its ratings for Thursday and Friday's rounds in Phoenix were up 53% and 59%, respectively, over 2010.
Dustin Johnson, another American who captures the imagination of U.S. fans, is the two-time defending AT&T champion, but he will have to forget about his U.S. Open collapse at Pebble last summer.
Others to watch include 2004 AT&T champ Vijay Singh, who's coming off a final-round 66 and a T3 in Phoenix, a resurgent David Duval, who tied for second at last year's AT&T, and Nick Watney.
With a T6, including a Sunday 63, at the Farmers, and a T5 in Phoenix, Watney is threatening to become this year's Matt Kuchar.
Then again, Bill Haas may be on track for that title with three top 10s already this year. (He was eighth at the Hyundai, T2 at the Bob Hope and T9 at the Farmers.) One possible problem for Haas: His final-round scoring average in his last two events is 75.5.
'It's a process' for them, too
Dubai will feature other reclamation projects besides Woods.
Sergio Garcia, 79th in the world, is coming off a quiet T9 at the Commercialbank Qatar Masters last week. David Howell, who dropped off the map after the 2006 Ryder Cup, finished fifth in Qatar.
Then there's 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, who will be in Dubai trying to break a string of 12 missed cuts that dates back to last year. Campbell has dropped to 801st in the world.
Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British Open champion, is playing the Euro tour full time now because he's without status on the PGA Tour. The 45-year-old Dallas resident finished 13th at the Volvo Golf Champions in Bahrain and made about 30,000 Euros in January.
Henrik Stenson, who won the 2009 Players Championship, has dropped to 61st in the World Ranking.
John Daly, in perpetual recovery, will play the AT&T.
Big year for Denmark
Thomas Bjorn, who won his 11th Euro tour title in Qatar, will try for two Ws in a row in Dubai, but he could be excused for lapsing into a dream sequence. He beat Woods by two at the 2001 Desert Classic while being paired with him for all four rounds. At the time, Tiger was three-fourths of the way through his "Tiger Slam" of owning all four major titles at once. (All he had left to win was the Masters.)
Bjorn's upset of Woods in his prime may get just a few mentions at Emirates this week, but the Dane will garner more attention in July, when the British Open returns to Royal St. George's for the first time since 2003. That was the year Bjorn led by three shots with four holes to play but bogeyed 15 before needing three swipes to escape a sand trap and double-bogeying 16. He lost by one to Ben Curtis.
"I've set [a goal] to get myself back into the top 100 in the world, and from there get back into the top 50 in the world. And from there, anything can happen because you're playing in the right tournaments," Bjorn, who turns 40 later this month, said in Qatar. "This is a massive step in the right direction, but I'm by no means there yet."
Couples says back offering him 'no relief'
Langer will defend five titles this year, including both the U.S. and British Senior Opens, while John Cook has won the circuit's last two stroke-play events and is still seeking his first professional major.
What ever happened to Fred Couples? It turns out he's been fighting his on-again, off-again back pain, and losing the fight.
"I'm not getting any comfort at night," he said in a conference call for the Toshiba Classic on Tuesday. "I'm not sleeping very much."
Couples planned to see a specialist in San Diego on Wednesday and said he would be driving, not flying, to as many events as possible.
He did little more than make the cut in Phoenix last week.
"It was comical because I think I warmed up nine times to play four rounds," Couples said.
Tom Lehman, T5 at the Allianz last year, had the best week of any 50-plus pro in Phoenix — a T37 that included an opening round 65 and two 69s on the weekend.
If Mark (Two Wins) Wilson has had the best start to 2011, who's had the worst? Answer: Camilo Villegas, who got disqualified when a viewer called in at the Hyundai, missed the cut at the Sony, and WD'd from Phoenix after carding an opening-round 78. He tied for 44th at the Farmers. ... Jarrod Lyle's ace at the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale propelled him into a tie with Bubba Watson atop the Kodak Challenge standings at four under par. ... Sam Saunders, Arnold Palmer's grandson, gets a sponsor's exemption at the AT&T this week. ... Yani Tseng jumped to No. 2 in the world, .37 points behind Jiyai Shin, with her victory at the Women's Australian Open.