Tiger enters Dubai with lots of issues

BY foxsports • February 9, 2011

Tiger Woods has spent the past week working on fixing his broken golf swing.

“I feel a lot more comfortable coming into this week,” he said in Dubai on Wednesday.

It should be said that he didn’t appear uncomfortable after arriving in San Diego two weeks ago, though he certainly grew so as the week wore on.

At the Dubai Desert Classic — where he’s won twice in six starts — Woods makes his second appearance of a season he hopes will erase the bad memories of 2010.

Having fallen to third in the world, he will play the first two rounds alongside the men above him in the rankings, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.

The marquee threesome promises to provide more clues to the most fascinating puzzle in golf: Can Woods find the player he used to be or is the Tiger era over?

Kaymer, perhaps out of respect for the titan he watched as an awestruck boy in Germany obliterate the field at the 1997 Masters, thinks Woods will be back.

“At the moment, Lee and me, we are No. 1 and 2, but in every golfer's mind, (Woods) is the best player in the world,” he said.

“He is struggling a little bit, but he can still win every week. He doesn't need to be in his top form to win a golf tournament.”

Maybe that used to be the case.

Woods arrived in the Middle East coming off his worst performance since he hit rock bottom, finishing second-to-last in August at the Bridgestone Invitational.

Had it not been for holing a handful of clutch putts on his inward nine during the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open, Woods would’ve flirted with the cut line.

What’s astounding about that is that after 27 holes — even though he was far from his best — he was at seven under par, with no bogeys on his card and in a tie for fourth.

And then his game completely fell apart.

He had 12 bogeys against six birdies the rest of the tournament, getting progressively worse each day. He tied for 44th, his worst-ever finish at Torrey Pines, where he’s won seven times as a professional, including five in a row.

“There’s no two ways about it, it was a disappointing week,” said his caddie, Steve Williams, “We had high expectations going into that tournament.”

Ever the optimist, Woods said it was “good” to struggle as he did.

“It was good to have these problems kind of show themselves under tournament atmosphere,” he maintained in Dubai.

“It was very good to identify and fix it.”

Woods clearly sees his struggles as part of the learning process; he’s been rebuilding his swing under Sean Foley since last year’s PGA Championship.

“It takes time to make these changes. You don’t make changes and just start suddenly winning a bunch of golf tournaments. It doesn’t work that way,” he said.

But is the swing the only problem? I‘m not sure it‘s even his biggest problem.

Woods was crooked off the tee, but he still hit more fairways at Torrey Pines than Phil Mickelson, who finished runner-up. And Woods finish tied for 26th in greens hit in regulation.

I’ve seen him strike the ball just as poorly as he did in San Diego, especially at the end of the Hank Haney era, and yet still contend.

What I’ve never seen from him were the mental mistakes he kept making at Torrey Pines.

There was a time when you’d hardly ever see Woods miss a shot on the wrong side of a green — the side closest to the flag — but in San Diego he short-sided himself repeatedly.

That was the cause of his woeful scoring on the par fives at Torrey Pines. He made only four birdies from 16 attempts, mostly because he left himself in difficult spots, putting too much pressure on a short game that’s a shadow of what it once was.

Pitching, chipping, bunker play and putting were the bedrock of the Woods game. He could hit it all over the map but magically save par.

Not anymore.

And the malaise has spread to his wedges. Twelve times Woods was inside 120 yards and in the short grass at Torrey Pines. He made 10 pars and two bogeys from those opportunities. Investing with Bernie Madoff would’ve gotten you a better return than that.

It may be more comforting, and easier to swallow, for Woods to convince himself that his struggles stem from learning a new swing.

But I wonder if his problems aren’t deeper; if the scars of the sex scandal haven’t weakened the strongest mind in golf.

Or maybe it’s just that his heart isn’t in it anymore? Those who know him best say he doesn’t work as hard on his game.

“I don’t practice as much as I used to, but that’s a good thing,” Woods said on Wednesday.

“I’m able to spend more quality time with my kids, and that’s more important than what I do on the golf course.”

But Woods is a proud man, and as stubborn as they come.

He’ll want to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I know what I can do in the game,” he said.

“I feel like I can still win golf tournaments. I’m not that old . . . I figure I’ve still got some years ahead of me.”

But it’s clear that he’s thought about his golfing mortality.

He was asked in Dubai whether — given that he’s had a golf club in his hands for the best part of 33 years — he ever thought about doing something else with his life.

“Yeah,” Woods responded.

Naturally, he wouldn’t reveal what it was, other than to say that he “won’t be in front of you guys (the media).”

But he insists he has an exit strategy.

“I do know,” he said, “I do know.”

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