Tiger Woods’ woes open up at Augusta

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Someone who swings like Tiger Woods won the Players Championship. This was virtual golf at its dramatic best. Meanwhile, the Genuine Article is fighting his swing and must return to the laboratory behind Isleworth’s gates before driving inside Augusta National’s gates.

That means a closed Players leads to the most wide-open Masters since 1996, aka the year a Stanford dropout turned professional and performed plastic surgery on the face of the game.

Because Woods, at the moment, is in a rare vein of substandard form, there’s no sense of fait accompli like some recent years entering the first major championship. He has shot five over-par rounds in his last two tournaments. That’s two more than he had in all of that magical 2000. You might say invincibility’s aura has dulled.

“When you look at all the greens and fairways he missed this week, it’s not Tiger Woods golf, for sure,” said Butch Harmon, former Woods coach and current guide of Woods clone Adam Scott, the Players champion.

Woods, of course, is a victim of his own success. Time has shown that no one, not even he, can sustain the brilliance of his nine-victory Y2K. The man who spoiled us by winning seven of 11 majors through mid-June 2002 – and none of the last six – remains the planet’s best golfer.

His swing just happens to be out of kilter.

That would explain why we saw Woods in some remote places at the Players. Some of his misses went far off, visiting pine trees or deep rough far left or right, places usually reserved for Seve Ballesteros types. His Highness missed the 14th fairway to the right all four days. He found only 31 of 56 fairways (55.4 percent, tied for 71st) and 40 of 72 greens in regulation (55.6, T-64). This from a man who has won the GIR category in three seasons.

Everyone seems to think Scott swings better than the man he has emulated. At the moment, that’s not as huge of a compliment as it once was.

Harmon says Woods’ arm and shoulder planes are not matching up, and that his club is more shut at the top than before. NBC’s Johnny Miller took a telestrator to Woods’ swings of 2000 and now in pointing out slight flaws. Every instructor and lay observer this side of Tin Cup’s driving range seems to have an opinion.

Woods, who knows more about the subject than probably anybody else, says he has problems with his takeaway. That leads to problems in his downswing, which leads to problems off the tee, which results in fewer GIRs, which means fewer birdie opportunities.

The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone.

“When I get off, then obviously I’ve got to make compensations with my hands on the way down,” Woods said.

This is not alarming stuff. Just swing-in-rut stuff. Golf doesn’t lend itself to hourly analysis of the state of one’s game. Woods will be fine, this year and for a couple more decades. It wouldn’t surprise if he’s finely tuned before the Washington Road traffic jams.

Remember, he entered the month having dominated the WGC-Match Play. He’s not missing cuts, as his record streak of 120 consecutive finishes in the money attests. Woods has merely tied for 46th and 16th his last two starts. In the latter, he moved up from 108th after 18 despite playing with a quadricep he strained while picking up a tee.

“If he plays like he played here, I’d say that (the Masters is more up for grabs than usual),” Harmon said. “But you know Tiger – he’ll figure it out.”

The fickle game has a few important tenets. Don’t give strokes to anyone with tubes in his bag. Don’t wager against someone with a traveling handicap. Don’t wear clothes from Jesper Parnevik’s supplier if you’re built like Tour players named Craig.

And don’t doubt Tiger Woods.

Especially when he talks like this: “I’m pleased that the things I’m working on are starting to come together. I’m starting to show signs. I just need to replicate it more.”

Woods theories abound. He’s too nice now. He’s not as focused. Maybe engagement isn’t good for him. He needs Butch and is too stubborn to call him.

Of those, only the latter could be argued reasonably. That’s because Woods’ problem is a swing flaw that has evolved gradually, tracing to a knee problem that bothered him in late 2002 and limited his practice last year after surgery. Woods won seven of his last 12 majors with Harmon but none since. But don’t expect him to call the guru he helped make rich and famous, though perhaps he should.

“Butch and I are still friends,” Woods said. “I still talk to him when we’re out here. As far as asking for help on my golf swing, no.”

If Woods finds a groove on his own, the Masters field could be in trouble because he’s putting beautifully entering an event he has won three times. Considering the tough spots he put himself in, he wouldn’t have shot 69-68-73 the last three days if not for his work on the greens. He ranked in the top eight in both putting categories.

“The only thing Tiger has in his favor is he’s using his imagination well and he’s strong with the putter,” Padraig Harrington said. “And you need those most at Augusta.”

You don’t need a Racing Form to tell you this Masters has the potential to be wonderful. Numerous top players have fared well lately: Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Mike Weir, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington and Scott. A certain Work in Progress doesn’t look like a lock, for a change. Anyone who wore an orange shirt at TPC, save non-Masters starter Frank Lickliter, has a chance.

“I think it’ll be a great Masters,” Harmon said. “All the top players in the World Ranking are playing well, all peaking. It’ll be exciting.”

Not to mention more open than an Open.

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