Tiger still stuck in his rut at Doral

The harbingers for Tiger Woods these days are all bad.

The more he plays, the more he appears stuck in a revolving door: His play is at best mediocre which hurts his confidence which in turn seems to beget more bad play.

And, while he continues to struggle, the gap between the former world No. 1 and those who have overtaken him in the sport he dominated for so long continues to widen. That much was obvious after Thursday’s interrupted first round of the Cadillac Championship at Doral.

A fierce midday storm swept through Miami, rendering the famous Blue Monster toothless. The wind layed down, the rain left the greens soft and receptive; if there was ever a day to take advantage of Doral, this was that day.

World Mo. 1 Martin Kaymer started with three straight birdies and when played was stopped due to darkness was 5 under par through 10 holes. Hunter Mahan carded seven birdies, against no bogeys, through 12 holes. Seven players were at 5 under and only 14 in the 66-man field were over par.

Tiger Woods? He was languishing in a tie for 35th at 1 under par with three holes left to play in his opening round. He managed just two birdies against a bogey set up by a just awful miss. That bogey revealed, in microcosm, what ails Woods.

With the pin on the right at the long par 3 13th, Woods pulled instead of cut a long iron and flew his shot into the left trap. In days gone by, he would’ve relied on his deft short game to save par. But now that he’s changed his short-game technique – an evolution which he hasn’t come close to mastering – he chopped the bunker shot to 20 feet and missed the putt. Missing putts was the motif of his day, as it has been too many times the past year.

Playing alongside Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell as the afternoon‘s marquee attraction, Woods hit his approach closest on their first hole, the par 5 10th.

Yet when the threesome walked off the green, only Woods, who had eight feet for birdie, was still at even par.

McDowell, who’s making a habit of draining long putts on Woods — as he did to win the Chevron World Challenge in December — tapped in from 28 feet and Mickelson made from 12 feet.

As he stood on the 11th tee, the expression on Woods’ face matched the dark clouds still lingering overhead. Sadly for him, his mood wouldn’t much change.

To highlight just how poor Woods was on the greens Thursday, consider that the only two putts of substance he made were a 12 footer for par and an eight footer for birdie. In all, he had seven putts from between 10 to 15 feet — a range from which he was once deadly — and made just one.

Meanwhile, Vijay Singh, the most dismal of putters for much of his career, had four putts within that range and three of them found the bottom of the cup. Singh, who’s employing a strange new grip on a belly putter, will resume early on Friday morning at 5 under par.

Another player who’s been betrayed by his putter too many times, Australian Adam Scott, used a broomstick putter again and finds himself at 4 under par. It’s unfathomable that either of them would ever be putting better than Woods, yet it was the 14-time major champion who had 26 putts through 15 holes.

Mickelson finished the day at 2 under par but, like Woods, was left ruing missed opportunities. “When the storm went away, the weather cleared up and we just had beautiful weather,” he said. “There were some low scores. We didn’t play our best but we didn’t play terrible to where we shot ourselves in the foot. We are in good position tomorrow to come back out (and) finish the round strong.”

In the end, I wonder if Woods would do well to chew on the thoughts of Mahan, who is also a student of Canadian swing coach Sean Foley. Asked how he came to birdie his first four holes and seven of his opening 11, the laid-back Californian said he “just wanted to go out there and play and let everything happen.”

“I just kind of want to trust my game, trust my swing and just let everything kind of flow,” he said.

Woods looks like he trusts nothing about his game and is far too tense to let anything flow. “I got off to a good start and that just kind of gives you a little confidence and gives you a little momentum,” Mahan added.

Which got me thinking. I can’t remember the last time Woods got off to a good start or the last time he had any positive momentum.