It's been just about a month since we last saw Tiger Woods, who followed up a win at Bay Hill with a dismal effort at The Masters, the first major of the year. Woods looked to have momentum heading to Augusta, finally reaching the winner's circle in an official event in his last event before the major. It quickly came crashing down as Woods struggled to control his swing, eventually losing his cool as his frustrations boiled over. Instead of answering doubts about his game, he left more questions.
Woods has since disappeared -- back to the drawing board, to the range and to figure out what went wrong. Problems that have plagued him throughout his career -- specifically with the driver -- were magnified at The Masters, and appeared as bad as ever. He took a step back in an ongoing process to retool his swing.
Quail Hollow presents Woods a chance for redemption, in a way. It's not a major, but does feature a strong field and yet another challenge. It's the first of back-to-back events he will play -- a precursor to The Players; affectionately known as the fifth major. With the US Open a little over a month away, it's time for Woods to begin his preparation, and begin putting things together.
By now, Woods' external issues are apparent. The swing changes he made with new coach Sean Foley are still taking hold, still being worked on daily. But, as we've seen before when Woods tinkers, the process is far from smooth. He'll take one step forward and a giant leap back before eventually figuring it out. At this point in his career, the questions have shifted from when he'll figure it out to if.
At Augusta, misses to the left were aplenty, a fear of Woods' all along. Off the tee, he's been trying to take the pull-hook out of play for most of his career, instead opting for a baby cut. But at The Masters, a course that favors a right-to-left shot shape and features multiple dogleg lefts, Woods was unable to control his swing.
The result was two even-par rounds and two over-par rounds, a cumulative score of 293, or 5-over. He struggled on the par-fives, couldn't make birdie to save his life and was unable to find any semblance of consistency over the four days at Augusta. Nothing was going right, and it all snowballed on him.
By Friday, it became apparent Woods was hanging on for dear life, hoping to make it through the week and perhaps scratch together a run that never came. And when it didn't, he threw clubs, cursed and moped around the course.
But Woods' performance at The Masters is in the rear-view mirror and a lot can change in a month. If he's dedicated himself to grooving his swing and fixes the errors that popped up at Augusta, there's no reason not to believe he can compete at Quail Hollow. Everything is a mystery right now, however.
It's uncharted territory, in a way, for Woods and his fans. He's had droughts before, sure, but for whatever reason this feels different. Before, he had time on his side, and the aura that surrounded him was as strong as ever. Now, time is ticking as he chases Jack Nicklaus' major record, and the aura of invincibility is diminished, if not gone altogether.
If there's one thing we've learned about Woods over the years, it's that he thrives on competition and looks to punish the doubters. He's at a low point again, following up a momentum-building win with a head-shaking four rounds at Augusta. He's down, but certainly not out.
Watch Woods' swing, how he starts at Quail Hollow and where he's missing. If he's still driving the ball left of left, one could assume the problem remains. If he's figured out his driver -- or at least how to control it -- watch out. His iron play should still be at a high level, or at least enough to get by on, but how he plays off the tee could determine his fate.
And, of course, there's the putting. The man who always seemed to bury the quick putt, and who could look to the flat-stick to bail him out of trouble, will need to rely on his work on the greens more than ever -- solid swing mechanics or not. He'll need to be patient, avoid pressing and play within himself instead of fighting himself.
We can see what's wrong with Woods' swing and his issues are readily apparent. We can't, however, tell what's going on in his mind. Woods has been through hell -- much of it self-inflicted -- over the last two years, and has yet to find his form while fighting personal and professional issues. Nobody knows what's going on inside his head, or whether he's still as into the game as he once was.
Woods is a competitor, fiery as always, but that killer instinct has been missing as he's rebuilt his life, game and swing. And because golf is as much, if not more, mental than physical, those outside factors that affect his psyche cannot be ignored.
How Woods performs in the next two weeks, and whether he's able to string together solid performances, will say a lot about where his game is headed as the US Open approaches. It's still all about the majors for Woods, but he simply has to put the pieces together and build something as the summer approaches.
Can Woods make a statement as he returns to the course on Thursday at Quail Hollow? Nobody knows, but everyone will be watching again. He is Tiger Woods, after all.