PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods was once a cinch to make the weekend rounds, from which point he would, if not win, cash at least some kind of very large check. He made a Tour record 142 straight cuts from 1998 to 2005.
That seems like a long time ago. A nearly six-month-long personal crisis brought on by numerous marital infidelities has taken its toll, and Woods's confidence would seem to be at an all-time low as he tries to pick up the pieces of his game at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass this week.
"Well, it's getting better, no doubt," he said in his press conference Tuesday, after playing his second nine-hole practice round in as many days and again struggling, hitting a handful of balls into the water. "It couldn't get any worse."
Even Woods admits he played like a class B clod in shooting 74-79, his worst 36-hole score as a pro, to miss the cut at Quail Hollow last week, the sixth MC of his 13-year career. Now, with his swing out of sync and his head seemingly a long way away, possibly in Sweden, anything seems possible.
"I knew eventually this (scandal) was going to weigh on him and get into his game," Lee Trevino said by phone from his home in Dallas this week. "I know this because I'm an expert on this."
Like Woods, Trevino has played through marital discord, or tried to. In 1974, he says, he came into the old Tournament of Champions at La Costa as the favorite, having won in New Orleans and tied for second at Greensboro in his previous two starts.
He was playing so well that after going 7-under for his first 11 holes in his Tuesday practice round Trevino walked off the course to have a beer with one of his playing partners.
"Then my ex-wife and I got into a fight Wednesday night; it got crazy and heated," Trevino said. "There was name-calling, all that stuff, and finally she went to the airport and left San Diego to go back home, which at the time was El Paso.
"Well, it just absolutely wore my ass out," he continued. "I couldn't concentrate, and I couldn't play. I finished dead last. This is what's happening to Tiger right now."
Woods had never finished out of the top 11 at Quail Hollow, but looked completely hopeless there, especially on Friday, when he badly sprayed tee shots and appeared to give up on the greens.
His fate will again dominate news coverage this week, but there's a twist. If he finishes out of the top five and Phil Mickelson wins, Woods will lose his No. 1 ranking, which he has held for a record total of 598 weeks, to the popular left-hander.
Vijay Singh was the last player other than Woods to hold the top spot, in 2004. Mickelson has never had it.
Seldom has Woods looked more vulnerable. Rory McIlroy, who turned 21 on Tuesday, is coming off a 62 at Quail that hit like a sonic boom, breaking the course record and giving McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, his first trophy in the U.S.
It felt like a passing of the torch, coming two days after Woods bowed out, and hours after Ryo Ishikawa, 18, shot 58 to win in Japan. (McIlroy is in the Players field; Ishikawa is not.)
Lorena Ochoa, who had topped the women's game, retired the same day at age 28.
Now it's up to Woods, 34, and Mickelson, 39, to find a way to hang onto their primes. While the latter would seem to be trending upward, having finished solo second in Charlotte on the heels of his third Masters win at Augusta, the former is searching.
"He's trying to change his whole image — I can see that," said Trevino. "He's giving people more time, and that's great. I like that. But this thing with Elin and his children is weighing on him pretty heavy and it's going to take a while."
Said Woods: "I've been trying to make life adjustments and make life changes. You know, a lot of people when they go through treatment, they're able to make these adjustments in anonymity; I'm not. And that makes it a lot more difficult."
Woods and Mickelson headline a field that includes 27 of the top 30 in the world and is without only Retief Goosen, Anthony Kim and Steve Stricker. All three withdrew with injuries.
Woods will be paired with Hunter Mahan and Ian Poulter in the first two rounds; Mickelson gets Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson.
Foreign-born players have won in three of the last four years, which have given us winners Stephen Ames (2006), Mickelson ('07), Sergio Garcia ('08) and Henrik Stenson, who fired a bogey-free 66 on Sunday to come from five behind and win last year.
All but Mickelson have since receded into the background.
Stenson's best finishes this year: T8s at the Dubai Desert Classic and Volvo China Open. Garcia has fiddled with his grip and seems almost as lost as Woods, who will make his first public appearance at Sawgrass since his scripted apology in February.
He has never missed two consecutive cuts in his career.
"I won't ever underestimate him," Mickelson said in his press conference Tuesday. "Regardless of what he did last week, knowing the type of competitor he is, I expect him to come back and be the Tiger that we are used to seeing on the golf course."
There are no tournaments on the Champions, Nationwide or LPGA tours this week, which will help the PGA Tour focus attention on its flagship event. The European Tour's BMW Italian Open in Turin will feature the professional debut of 17-year-old Matteo Manassero, the low amateur at the Masters last month, but that will hardly be enough to divert attention from Ponte Vedra.
Understandably, much of Tiger's on-course trouble seems to be mental. He almost never misses that many putts, almost never appears not to be trying his best. With his wife and kids believed to be in Sweden, and his marriage on the rocks if not over, he would be inhuman not to dwell on the mess he's made of his life.
But he acknowledged Tuesday his problem are physical, too. His full swing is in disarray, something close observers noticed even as he finished fourth at Augusta, where woefully errant tee shots don't always lead to much trouble. Pete Dye's watery masterpiece at Sawgrass offers no such leniency, and not just on the most famously intimidating tee shots at 17 and 18.
Trevino has long fancied himself Tiger's biggest fan, and is in a unique position to empathize with him. Both have tried to take down the mighty Jack Nicklaus, and both have experienced life deep in the matrimonial rough. Trevino even wore red on Sundays.
"Golf is the loneliest sport there is," Trevino told Golf Magazine in 2005. "Especially when you're good at it."
You could imagine Woods saying such a thing right now.
Watching him try to get his groove back in time to fend off Mickelson and the wave of young players should be fascinating, not least because Sawgrass is a rough place to try to rebuild.
The imperiled No. 1 will almost certainly hear some digs from the crowd, especially on the beer-soaked 17th hole, and the last thing anyone with swing issues needs is to be staring at railroad ties and water all day.
"Tiger won't play any good at the Players," Trevino said. "Don't be surprised if he misses the cut there, too."
The comeback will come, he added, but not before closure.
"When my ex-wife finally asked for a divorce, I finished second in my next tournament," he said. "Because I knew it was coming, and now I was going to start a new life. He's got a pretty heavy heart right now, and it doesn't matter how many practice balls he hits. When it gets resolved between him and his wife, one way or the other, that's when he starts his comeback."