AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods is back to not being back.
In case that's not clear, let me try again. I was pretty sure Tiger was back after that closing 62 in the Honda Classic and a dominating victory at Bay Hill. He was so convincing. But after four dismal Masters rounds in which he never broke par and managed just three birdies all week on the back nine , none of them on a par 5 (somebody alert Mr. Ripley!), now I'm pretty sure Tiger isn't back. Not at all. Maybe not even close.
In short: What the hell is going on, Tiger? Let us count the ways that Tiger went wrong. Or perhaps the excuses.
Thursday's 72: "Old patterns… some of my stuff from a few years ago. The Hank backswing was the new downswing."
(It's nice to know that Woods is wasting no time pointing the finger of blame at former coach Hank Haney in retaliation for his tell-some book. We can look forward to more of the same. And every time he bleats Haney's name, it probably moves another 10,000 copies.)
Friday's 75: "Well, I know what to do, it's just a matter of doing. That's the frustrating part… I've got to stay patient and keep doing the reps."
(Doing the reps? It's been two years since Haney divorced Tiger and at least 18 months since he and Sean Foley started working together. How many reps does the best player of his generation need? How many months? How many years? And what, he didn't have enough reps for that 62 or that blowout win at Bay Hill? This round featured one swing that perfectly summarized his week. At the par-3 16th, he blocked a 9-iron shot so badly that he completely missed the green, buried his ball in the bunker, threw his club on the ground and then drop-kicked it half a dozen yards. Some French words may have been uttered in disgust.)
Saturday's 72: "I was so close to putting it together today. I'm telling you, it was so close to being a really good round. I'm so close to turning it around."
(Yeah, and he was so close to making a third birdie after the fourth hole… but he didn't.)
Sunday's 74: "You're not going to play well every week. I had the wrong ballstriking week at the wrong time… Thank God my short game was good this week and my putting was really good. Unfortunately, they were all for pars, not birdies. I played the par 5s atrociously. You have to dominate the par-5s, and I did not do that at all… I can get it dialed in on the range and it feels really good. I go to the course and I just don't quite trust it at all. It means I need more reps."
(Wait, weren't you so close to turning it around 24 hours earlier? And as for still needing more reps, well, you just got 293 of them over the last four days. That's a lotta reps. Remember when you used to make fun of those players who couldn't get it from the range to the course, the guys you dubbed "Ranger Ricks"? If you're really hitting it that good on the range — the way you did at Honda and Bay Hill — it sounds like you've gone a little Rickalicious yourself.)
Gone was Tuesday's swagger, when he joked that the best way to handle Augusta National's treacherous greens was "if you hit it really close all the time." Gone was the confidence in his revived game when he actually bragged on himself a bit (a fairly rare occurrence) and how he's "driving the ball much better than I have" and it's "got some heat behind and it and it's very straight."
Tiger's drives were the opposite of straight. He hit slightly more than half of Augusta National's fairways (many of them enormous) and ranked 61st out of 63 players who made the cut. He was 51st in greens hit in regulation.
The one thing Woods said that made sense was how well he played on and around the greens. If he hadn't chipped and putted something like the Tiger Woods we're now beginning to struggle to remember, the number 80 might have been in play.
He didn't look happy on the weekend. He wore the mask of a man being forced to do housecleaning chores. Maybe that's understandable when you're facing one of the world's most challenging courses, the one with the tiniest margin for error, and you can't trust your swing and you know it.
What happened during that two weeks between Bay Hill and the Masters? Only Ranger Rick knows for sure, and he's not telling. He did admit, after the fact, that maybe his triumphant return to glory wasn't blemish-free, that he had a few swing issues at Bay Hill when he won. Remember, he blew one shot out of bounds at the 15th hole, which he blamed on a woman's shout during his downswing, and had another one at the 10th that was headed out of bounds if not for a retaining fence. Since he won by five, those glitches didn't seem to matter. In hindsight, Woods implied, maybe they did matter.
"Even at Bay Hill, it was happening," Woods said of his swing regression, "but I was able to rectify it and maybe hit one or two shots like that. I would straighten it out and be fine. Here, unfortunately, it's carrying over to more than that."
There are no easy answers. There was speculation that Woods spent the week working on hitting high draws in preparation for Augusta and that messed up his Foley swing, a nice little cut. Some thought they detected Tiger's disguising a limp in the early rounds, leading to speculation that he tweaked his ailing Achilles tendon or maybe dinged his bad knee, and that was causing his swing problems, some of which involved his old habit of dropping his head during his forward swing.
We can agree on one thing. Tiger Woods played ugly this week. Where does he go from here? Maybe the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, perhaps the Players Championship at the Stadium Course the following week. Woods wouldn't say what he's penciled in on his schedule.
The safest bet on where he goes next is the practice range.
Ranger Rick needs reps. A lot of them.
So he says.