Rude: When will we see Tiger again?

Tiger Woods reacts to his missed putt on the 17th hole during the first round of the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play Championship.

Tiger Woods reacts to his missed putt on the 17th hole during the first round of the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play Championship.

MARANA, Ariz. – On the front nine, Thomas Bjorn twice hit tee shots wide right onto the desert, from where he had to punch sideways back to the fairway. He hit five bunkers. He hit only four greens in regulation. And yet somehow he turned 1 up against the lab rat known as Tiger Woods in the first round of the WGC Accenture Match Play.

It was that kind of a sloppy match between one player we haven’t seen in years except with a walkie-talkie at the Ryder Cup and another who hasn’t been the same since he hit a hydrant in 2009. 

 And it had a sloppy ending for the man who used to be called the best player ever, who continues to play swing, who continues to talk about his swing change being a process, who continues to hit good shots only on an inconsistent basis. 

Looking like the player who occupied the world No. 1 ranking for 623 weeks over the years before losing it in October, Woods hit approach shots to 9 feet on Nos. 17 and 18. He missed the first left and made the second, forcing sudden death.

“I had all the momentum,” Woods said.

 And then he gave it away with one poor swing. Woods pushed a 3-wood tee shot on the first extra hole (No. 1) into desert brush right and needed two shots just to nudge the ball sideways to the fairway. Woods would go on to make double-bogey 6, concede Bjorn a par and leave town using the word “disappointing” more than “process,” an upset.

“Disappointing, very disappointing,” he said. “I just gave (momentum) away. The fairway is, what, 200 yards wide and I can’t put the ball in the fairway. That’s disappointing.”

This is what we’re getting from Woods these days: Flashes. We used to get sustained excellence. We used to see him slap away players like Bjorn, who was No. 134 in the world at January’s end (before winning the Qatar Masters), who hadn’t played in a WGC Match Play since 2007, who hadn’t gotten past the first round in this event since 2004.

Golf is that unpredictable now, just as it was before Woods turned pro in 1996. Maybe that’s spinmeister Tim Finchem’s sell during negotiations with television networks this fall: Golf is more exciting than ever because Woods is no longer automatic.

By autumn, Woods might be back in form. Who knows? His swing might be second nature by then. Who knows? All I know is that we didn’t used to ask “Who knows?” regarding Tiger Woods.

A smart golf writer friend of mine says he likes the kind of swing Woods is trying to perfect, that Woods will get it down in time. 

Maybe so, but who knows? What is certain is that he’s going through major growing pains. And all the thinking about his swing seems to have infected his short game a bit, given bad chips he hit on Nos. 13 and 15, chips that ended up 15 and 8 feet short.

Besides the last two holes of regulation, he also hit approaches close at Nos. 7 (4 feet), 9 (9 feet) and 10 (14 feet). He looked like Tiger Woods after a slow start that included airmailing the green at No. 1, rinsing a tee shot way right and short on the 208-yard third, laying up into a bunker at No. 4 and missing greens at the next two.

“It wasn’t where I wanted it,” he said of a swing that enabled him to hit only 11 of 19 greens in regulation, “but then I got it back.”

And then he lost it again with one wild tee shot.

“You’re going through a big change, you hit the odd one just a little bit off line,” Bjorn said.

Woods was asked afterward how often he thinks of his swing as he stands over the ball. 

“A lot,” he said. “Every time. That’s a process. That’s what I went through with Hank (Haney) and Butch (Harmon, his former instructors). It took 18 months to a couple of years. Still in the process, still working on it.”

The difference is that his performances were better during the past two swing changes. But then every laboratory experiment has its own timetable and own outcome.

 We won’t know about this for a while, it seems. Woods too often looks like he doesn’t have confidence. It seems to come and go. You could see it building after he won Nos. 9-11 to go 1 up.

“I saw that spring in his step, and that worried me a bit,” Bjorn said.

The spring. That’s what has been missing. In helping him get it back, perhaps the best thing his new coach, Sean Foley, can tell him is, “You are Tiger Woods. Go play golf.”

As it was, the winner was saying things like, “We’re not proud of the way we played” and “there are certain things (Woods) looks like he’s not comfortable with.”

But Bjorn hardly is ready to write Woods off. He just says time and patience will be needed before we see Woods back at No. 1.

“We all know as players when you go through stuff like that it can be extremely difficult to play,” Bjorn said. “He’s just going to need a bit of time to get those things sorted out. We all know he’s going to win golf tournaments again.

“When he lands on one, there’s no stopping him. He’ll get his confidence up, and then he’ll get straight back to where he plays his best. But it can take time.”

 As we know, it’s a process.

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