Tiger still searching for his game

Alvaro Quiros had 15 birdies and three eagles for the week in Dubai.

Tiger Woods matched him on the plus-side of the ledger with 17 birdies and two eagles.

Yet while the powerful young Spaniard hoisted the trophy at the Desert Classic, Woods finished seven shots back, dropping into a tie for 20th after an abysmal final-round 75 that culminated, appropriately enough, with a drowned wedge shot approach.

Woods began the final round one shot off the lead, yet as he did two weeks ago in San Diego, the greatest Sunday performer of our generation saved his worst for last.

And he set the tone early, making bogey on the driveable second — a hole Quiros eagled — then being one of only three players in the field to bogey the straightforward par-5 third.

It was all a disaster, yet afterward, Woods did what he’s wont to do: maintain that everything’s just fine.

“It was a step in the right direction, there’s no doubt,” he said. “I improved a lot considering where I was at Torrey Pines a couple of weeks ago. That’s a step in the right direction.

“Obviously I didn’t finish the way I needed to finish to win this golf tournament. Put myself there after two rounds and just didn’t get it done (but) it’s progressing.”

If he ever quit playing golf, he’d be a natural at positivity training.

Woods has always been in a class of his own when it comes to playing his cards close to his chest, never betraying controversial opinions, sanitizing every comment so it‘s never worth repeating.

But behind the veneer of optimism, he has to know that there’s something very wrong with his golf game.

Performances like these on the back of the first winless season of his career are seriously damaging the Woods aura.

The tendency after two failures to open a season Woods had hoped would make people forget the tabloid scandal of last year will be to blame Sean Foley, his new coach.

Woods, after all, finished outside the top 10 for the first time in his career at Torrey Pines, where he’d won seven times, and had his worst-ever finish in Dubai, where he’d won twice in six previous visits and never before finished outside the top five.

It’s certainly true that he looks uncomfortable over the ball at times as he tries to make the idiosyncratic swing preferred by Foley.

True, too, that he tends to muscle shots — particularly wedges — more than play them as they’re meant to be played.

Some of that might be due to the fact that as his life disintegrated last year, Woods found solace not on the driving range but in the gym.

So he’s not only playing without the same feel he once had but is struggling to rid himself of the “motor patterns” left over from the Hank Haney techniques, which don’t gel at all with Foley’s approach.

“It’s the old motor patterns,” he told me at Torrey Pines.

“It’s how the body moves on the way back vs. how Foley wants it to move.

“If I do it correctly, I don’t get stuck. The club comes down in front of me. I’ve got more power. I’ve got more speed. I hit it further, hitting shots both ways.

“But if I don’t, it’s going to be a little more of a steer, and it’s not anywhere near as good as what I can do.”

Not anywhere near as good as what he can do is what we’ve seen a lot from Woods.

But, to be fair to both he and Foley, it hasn‘t all been bad.

In Dubai, Woods struck three or four pure irons. The three wood into the 18th to set up an eagle to end the first round was majestic, as good as any shot he’d played in the halycon days.

But what’s really killing Woods is that he’s gone from the man you’d want with a wedge in his hand if your life depended upon an up-and-down to a not-so-sharp six handicapper around the greens.

Look inside the numbers in Dubai and it’s soon obvious why Quiros won and Woods finished so far back.

One of them recovered from their mistakes and the other didn’t.

Quiros might have made two triple-bogeys, but he only failed to get up-and-down six times in four days. Woods was a woeful 13 of 28 on converting from missed greens.

And that’s not including the three pars he settled for on par 5s after being near the green in two shots.

Not all of those failures stemmed from atrocious chipping — or missed short putts — because Woods, as he did in San Diego, kept short-siding himself, making saving par nearly impossible.

These are mental errors — like the three balls he hit into the drink — that we never used to see from him.

“A couple glaring examples of what I need to work on,” he said of his mistakes.

“Which is good.”