MARANA, Arizona — Tiger Woods has left the building. A search party has been sent into the desert to retrieve his game. He left more putts out there than a motorbike running out of gas.
Woods stood over a five-footer on the 18th green with a chance to take his match against Nick Watney into extra holes in the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. In days gone by, it would have been as good as a Sunday morning gimme among pals. Watney was still thinking that way. He had already taken out his pin chart and was expecting to march off to the first tee again.
"No question I thought he was going to make it," Watney said. "I think everybody thought he was going to make it, to be honest. I know he thought he would."
Woods is driving the ball farther and more crisply, and his ballstriking is improving, but if he can't get the ball in the hole, he's toast. Where there once was certainty, there is now doubt every time Woods stands over a putt. He is no longer the world's greatest clutch putter. He is no longer Superman on the greens. He's Clark Kent, without his glasses.
What was extraordinary was not so much that Woods missed the putt, but that his ball never even threatened the hole — from five feet. On the day, Woods missed eight putts inside 15 feet, which included five from 10 feet or closer. He gave the victory to Watney, but afterward Woods had all the solutions at hand.
"I was fighting the blocks all day," he said. "I'm taking it back shut. I need to make that toe move. I should be able to fix it in about a day."
But Woods's game is seemingly held together by so many Band-Aids that he will soon resemble a mummy. And will golf ever see the return of the mummy? Woods is such a tease. One second he's striping it, and the next he's hacking out of the scrub and blocking putts. The Tiger groan is heard more than the Tiger roar these days. It was another head-scratching, cat-kicking day for Woods, who again spent time playing left-handed, this time with his backside perilously close to a cactus. He threw a club in anger at the 10th. He huffed and puffed and blew himself out.
There is more evidence of a continuing purgatory for his game rather than a renaissance, but Woods doesn't see it that way.
"I didn't miss a single shot coming in, which is good," he said. "And that was fun to hit the ball that well."
Woods refused to grade his game. If it were 10 out of 10, Woods would surely say so, but it's more like a 6 or a 7. Watney was asked to assess Woods's game. "It's still in there," he said.
Maybe so, but Woods just can't seem to set it free. He's just another golfer having bad days and good days. He's beatable. It's fascinating to watch Woods struggle to regain his powers. He has the crowd on his side. People want to see him back. His next public trial is one week away at the Honda.
There was better news for Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy. Their battle to depose Luke Donald as No.1 in the world continues. But only victory on Sunday will be enough to reach the summit. Westwood made it through to Friday at the Match Play for the first time in 12 attempts and was in a cheeky mood after his round.
"I don't know what Fridays are like here," he said. "First thing I'm going to do is fill up my car, because I've never had to drive on a Friday before."
Westwood set off against Robert Karlsson faster than Hoof It, the horse Westwood owns with his manager, Chubby Chandler. The Englishman was 5 up after 10 holes before throwing away the 11th like a weekend hacker; he made double-bogey seven and lost the hole to a bogey six. It scarcely mattered as Karlsson was playing so poorly. Victory was Westwood's, 3 and 2.
McIlroy chipped in at the 14th to get to 3 up against Anders Hansen with four to play, and he closed him out, 3 and 2. The Northern Irishman keeps getting asked about his chance of getting to No. 1 in the World Ranking.
"Everyone keeps telling me, so it's hard to put it out of my mind," he said. "It's a little bit of extra motivation this week knowing that if I can get through four more matches, I could go to the top of the World Rankings, which is obviously a huge moment for my career."
His next opponent is Miguel Angel Jimenez, who played under the radar to beat 2011 PGA Champion Keegan Bradley, 2 and 1. In other notable results, the thrashing of the day was handed out to Francesco Molinari, a 7-and-5 dusting at the hands of Dustin Johnson. Hunter Mahan sent Y.E. Yang packing, 5 and 3.
And there will be an all-Scottish clash in the last 16 between Paul Lawrie and Martin Laird, who cuffed the youngsters Ryo Ishikawa and Matteo Manassero. Good to see the Home of Golf doing so well in the Arizona desert. It must be the Scottish weather.