Tiger Woods will match his one (1!) FedExCup point and a sluggish start to his 2014 against the games of Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, and a Honda Classic field sporting three other top-10 golfers (following Justin Rose's withdrawal due to shoulder pain on Tuesday) when he ventures not too far from home for this week’s tour event at PGA National.
With that ugly 79 and the missed cut at Torrey Pines his most recent performance stateside, Woods has played only two worldwide competitive events heading into a critical three-game Florida Swing that serves as the unofficial kickoff to the pre-Masters season. Fifteen events into the PGA Tour's wrap-around 2013-2014 season and the state of Tiger’s game following a couple of lengthy layoffs remains a mystery to those outside his entourage.
"I don't know what was going through his head, but it was really different to see him play like that," third-round playing partner Jhonattan Vegas told reporters after Woods’ ghastly 79 at the Farmers Insurance Open. "You don't expect that out of him, but it happens to the best. He's human just like the rest of us."
"Once the Florida Swing starts, we're all just building toward that one week in April,'' Woods told ESPN.com’s Bob Harig recently. "We're all about building toward that. Don't finish dead last. And if you win, great."
Woods has always had his eyes on the four prestigious prizes that pop up each year, but long gone are the days when he could take an extended leave of absence before arriving at an event, nailing a peg into the ground, and bending the course and the field to his will.
Players "are not worried about Tiger Woods," Scott insisted earlier this month.
The reigning Masters champion was just piling on, after 20-year-old Jordan Spieth dared to tug on Superman’s cape.
"He’s easy to play with, he talks to us," last year’s Rookie of the Year said of the guy he gutted in the first round at Torrey.
NBC/Golf Channel analyst Johnny Miller agreed that Woods was no longer cloaked in a mystical aura that once enveloped opponents anywhere within his general vicinity.
"Now the players really believe that, yeah, he is terrific and he won five times last year, whatever it was, and he was really good, but he was beatable," Miller said during a Monday teleconference with reporters. "Before it was like if he had his ‘A’ game, you could just kiss [the tournament] off; it wasn't going to happen.
"He was just so much better than everybody and so much better under pressure and so much better on Sundays and so much better in the majors it was not a fair fight," Miller added. "Now it's a fair fight."
Tiger booster Notah Begay reluctantly concurred.
"I think his game has come back down to earth a little bit," said Miller’s fellow commentator, noting that the airing of his former Stanford teammate’s personal issues changed everything, inside and outside the ropes.
"I do think he has the ability to create that separation, and he doesn't necessarily have to have his ‘A’ game, but it used to be that he could be somewhat off of his game and still finish in the top 10," Begay said. "His top-10 performances over the last two or three years, they're not as high of a percentage as they were prior to the scandal."
Last month’s Farmers Insurance Open was certainly a case in point. The defending champion appeared at Torrey Pines in search of his ninth overall win on a venue he had vanquished over the years and, instead, looked as rusty as he had ever been on his way to equaling his second-worst score as a professional. Woods, in Dubai, pointed to lack of practice following his horrid 72-71-79 performance at Torrey that included finding just 43 percent of fairways and 55 percent of greens, as well as compiling a negative strokes gained-putting stat, all of which led to his first-ever 54-hole missed cut.
"It's just part of the process," he told reporters in the Emirates. "I took a long break there and didn't really do anything much. Just trying to get my body organized ... Now just need to get the game to come around."
Bundle all of that with his T41 finish in Dubai and just two sub-70 scores in his 11 rounds and the stats tell a tale of a golfer in need of what he would call serious reps. For sure, Woods invented the Tiger-light playing schedule so much in vogue among his cohorts these days, but the worst two-game start in his career has many wondering how the 14-time major champion could enter tourneys appearing to be so ill-prepared.
"Tiger Woods, he's hardly played," NBC/Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo observed. "Obviously, he hadn't practiced prior to Torrey Pines, so all of a sudden [the Florida events present] a big litmus test for guys like Mickelson and Woods."
Miller and Begay expressed bewilderment about Tiger declining to add contests to his wide-open calendar.
"Are you surprised that Tiger, after not doing real well at San Diego, that he didn't try some other tournaments so far, out of his normal schedule?" Miller asked Begay, who agreed that additional competition would have made sense for Woods.
"I thought that that was actually a consideration and ... might have been a good idea, to maybe add one or two events just to kind of get some more reps in, but that doesn't seem like it's going to be the case," Begay said. "I thought that would have been a great idea."
Had he been a member of Team Tiger, Miller said he would have urged his meal ticket to smack some golf balls with intent.
"If I was his manager, I would have definitely had him go to Riviera [earlier this month for the Northern Trust Open] or something because that can't be the best feeling the way he was swinging," Miller said. "San Diego he was swinging with no rhythm, sort of a cutoff backswing, it just didn't have much of a flow to it, and putting wasn't great. He needed another tournament if he wants to really do well ... I would have thought he would want something more prior to Honda."
Lack of competition may be just one of the issues for the aging superstar. Early-season problems could also stem from several other factors, including his balky back, which he hurt last season and may still be bothering him, or his creaky, 38-year-old knees. Ex-coach Hank Haney blamed Woods’ woes on his overly bulked-up physique.
Whatever the problems are for Woods, he'll stake his game against a stacked pool of players who no longer wilt at the sight of him on the first tee and hope to put together a strong start to his Masters prep.