SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods can’t start a new year without being reminded of the last one.
And the last one wasn’t very good.
Some of his peers couldn’t help but chuckle when the pro-am tee times for the Farmers Insurance Open were posted in the locker room at Torrey Pines. For more than a decade, Woods had the first available tee time, a perk for being the best player on the PGA Tour, or not far from it. Those pro-am times are determined by the previous year’s money list.
Woods was No. 68 on the 2010 money list.
He tees off at 11 a.m., which is about the time he used to finish.
“I can’t imagine he’ll be too thrilled with that,” Pat Perez said.
And then there’s the world ranking.
Woods lost his No. 1 spot nearly three months ago to Lee Westwood, so that’s old news. He dropped yet another spot, to No. 3, this week when Martin Kaymer won the Abu Dhabi Championship by eight shots. And if Woods doesn’t return to his former self quickly, it won’t be long before he slips even further. The last time he was not in the top three was May 11, 1997.
What’s more noteworthy about the world ranking, however, is it’s the first time Woods has been ranked behind someone younger than him. He turned 35 over the holidays.
Woods has known this day was coming, even when his game appeared untouchable. In time, there would be a player – or players, in this case – younger than him and not as intimidated.
Sure, there was a brief challenge from Sergio Garcia. Adam Scott reached as high as No. 3, and Paul Casey did the same a year later.
Now, the youth brigade is coming in bunches.
Ahead of him in the ranking is Kaymer, the 26-year-old German who won the PGA Championship last year to become the youngest major champion since Woods. Kaymer also won the European Tour money title, and started the year with an eight-shot victory over what will be one of the strongest fields the European Tour will assemble all year.
“He’s probably the most formidable player in the world when he is leading,” Padraig Harrington said.
That’s what they used to say about Woods. But in his most recent tournament, the Chevron World Challenge, Woods blew a four-shot lead in the final round to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. It was the first time Woods had lost a lead that large.
“He used to appear invincible,” McDowell said that day. “Of course, he’s made himself appear more human in the last 12 months. But there’s something a bit special about his golf game, and I fully expect that mystique to return.”
McDowell is 31, and right behind Woods in the world ranking, at No. 4.
Woods also has to contend with younger players such as Rory McIlroy, Casey and perhaps even Luke Donald from Europe, plus Dustin Johnson and Anthony Kim from the American side.
So many talented, young players will not make Woods’ task any easier. The bigger question is whether Woods is equipped for the fight.
Some of the answers might arrive this week at Torrey Pines, a public course along the Pacific bluffs that Woods has owned like no other. His epic U.S. Open title in 2008 was the seventh time he had won as pro on Torrey Pines. He has not lost on this golf course since 2004, although he missed the past two years. He has never finished out of the top 10.
But just like last year, no one is quite sure what to expect.
His new swing coach, Sean Foley, said he spent about four hours a week with Woods on the practice range at Isleworth during the past few months, and he liked what he saw. He said Woods no longer has to think as much about what he’s doing. The swing repeats more easily. What he feels matches up with the mechanics.
How will that translate with a scorecard in hand?
“If you want to anticipate what happens in the future, look to the past,” Foley suggested. “What people lose touch of, because we’re such a bandwagon society, is that for a decade there, it might have been one of the greatest 10-year runs in the history of athletics. Obviously, he struggled last year. But I look forward to watching him compete.”
When Kaymer won in Abu Dhabi, it was his ninth win in his 100th start on the European Tour. That still doesn’t compare with Woods, who won 28 times – including six majors – in his first 100 starts on the much stronger PGA Tour.
History is easily forgotten, although in this case, it’s understandable.
Woods has overcome swing changes in 1998 and 2004. He has overcome knee surgeries, one at the end of 2002, two during 2008. Even so, he has never been humbled like he was last year, when his private failures became so public, and so embarrassing.
His performance was such that no one fears him.
Ian Poulter had some fun with Woods on Twitter early Tuesday, after seeing that Woods had offered to answer questions from his fans before leaving Florida for San Diego.
Poulter kept egging on Woods to get involved with Twitter.
“come on tiger when are you going to join the lads for some banter,” said one Poulter tweet. That was followed by Poulter’s message to Westwood that “im not having it that No3 is writing his own tweets. He doesn’t want to play.”
Westwood submitted this question to Woods: “is it true you’ve dyed your hair Ginger,signed a deal with IJP clothing and bought a White Ferrari cos your in awe of poults?”
Woods didn’t take the bait. There were no replies.
Really, the only thing No. 3 can do now is try to play like he did when he was No. 1.