(AP) – The interview room was packed, with green-jacketed Augusta National members lining the back wall to make sure journalists didn’t get too unruly. Tiger Woods was on his way in, finally ready to answer some of the questions about the mystery that surrounded his life.
None of us in the room that day last April expected to learn much, and Woods was true to form. He talked vaguely about becoming a better man, danced around questions about his personal life and offered little about the state of his game.
Even the bizarre commercial Nike ran a few days later with his late father presumably speaking to him from above drew just a soulful gaze from an otherwise silent Woods.
“I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?” Dad asked.
A year later we’re still trying to figure that out. Woods remains as much of an enigma today as he was in the room that day at Augusta National, preparing for his return to golf while still grappling with the issues that would eventually make him a divorced man.
There are reports he has a new girlfriend, which stirred up some excitement recently among the tabloids. But as another Masters looms the talk about his personal life has largely faded.
Now we just want to know about his game.
It was on display Saturday in Florida, where Woods entered the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with thoughts of contending after a posting a nifty 68 the day before on a tough golf course.
“We’re trying to build toward the first major, and that’s kind of how my game is,” he said after the round. “It’s building, and it’s coming.”
Hopeful words, though nothing we haven’t heard before. Woods has been talking about his game coming around for months now, even as his winless streak stretches into a second year.
Then he plays like he did on Saturday, and you wonder if he’ll ever win another green jacket again.
Two balls in the water on the back nine. Chunked chips from perfect lies. Misses on short putts, the kind he never missed before.
It all added up to a fat 74 that once again left Woods no chance of winning in his final tuneup before the Masters. On a course he once dominated, Woods struggled to hold his place as Bubba Watson and some of the game’s rising stars took dead aim at the flags.
The Masters is less than two weeks away. And Woods still looks lost.
Just what is wrong with his game has been debated in press rooms and bars from the coast of California to the swamps of Florida. Trying to figure it out is about as easy as trying to figure Woods out, and that’s a task a lot of amateur psychologists have failed at.
He has a good round, then follows it with a stinker. He hits shots like the Woods of old used to hit, then follows them with clunkers.
There’s no real pattern to it, which makes it even more perplexing. Woods himself seems baffled by it all, as if it’s happening to someone else.
He should be dreading the drive down Magnolia Lane to one of the parking spots reserved for former champions. In a strange way, though, Augusta National might just be the perfect place to turn it all around.
He picked it for his coming out party last year and was in contention all week, despite a balky swing. Every round was under par, and his tie for fourth place gave no indication of the struggles that were yet to come.
He knows every blade of grass and every shot he’ll have to play. If he was able perform like he did last year with the circus that surrounded him, he should be able to put some scores on the board this year.
“There are certain golf courses where I feel pretty good and comfortable no matter how my form is going into it, and Augusta is one of them,” Woods said. “Over the years I’ve won there a few times, but the majority of my finishes have been pretty high. Golf course fits my game.”
If Woods was upset after his round Saturday, he didn’t show it. He was patient with the press, then went and signed autographs for about five minutes.
That’s something the Tiger of old wouldn’t have done and proof he’s at least trying to live up to his vow of being more respectful to both the game and its fans. He’s still a work in progress but seems more comfortable in his occasional interactions with fans.
The new swing is coming around, too. There are more good shots than bad, and now it’s just a matter of putting them together more consistently.
Sooner or later, though, he needs to win to get his swagger back.
For Woods, the Masters couldn’t come at a better time.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org