Woods remains an enigma in return to Pebble

The swing is different, and so, too, is the man. Tiger Woods couldn’t help but change in the 10 years since he blew everyone away at Pebble Beach, sex scandal or not.

DOMINATING PERFORMANCE —This June 18, 2000, file photo shows Tiger Woods with the winner’s trophy after capturing the 100th U.S. Open Golf Championship at the Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif.

He was 24 then, a talent so prodigious that his fellow pros had to fight the urge not to bow before him whenever graced by his presence. He won the U.S. Open by an astonishing 15 shots, and the talk in the locker room wasn’t who would challenge him on the course, but who would be lucky enough to finish second the next time he teed it up.

Woods would go on to win the British Open, the PGA Championship, and then the Masters the next year. He held all four major championships at once, a feat so difficult that even the great Jack Nicklaus couldn’t do it.

Tigermania was raging.

No one could imagine what the next 10 years would bring. But Woods continued to thrill us even as he changed his swing, got married, lost his father and had two children of his own.

He seemed able to handle life’s events as easily as he handled Pebble Beach. Few knew his darker secrets, and, if they did, they weren’t talking.

Then it all imploded, in the most spectacular of ways.

The same fans who once revered Woods now ridiculed him. The same players who once feared Woods now pitied him.

He returns to Pebble Beach not with hopes of winning but with hopes of finishing. A summer that once seemed to hold such promise seems to be slipping away.

Everyone seems to have an idea what’s wrong with Tiger. No one really knows what’s wrong with Tiger. All we really know is that he’s somehow different. Not different in ways he promised in his latest comeback, just different.

The player who didn’t say a word to his playing partners while beating them into submission 10 years ago now chats and jokes with them as he walks down the fairway. The man who didn’t pay a bit of attention to fans a decade ago as he hit drives down the fairway now hands out autographed gloves when he hits them with his drives.

Almost incredibly, though, he remains an enigma. Even with all that’s been said and written about him, we still know very little.

Journalists gingerly probe him for answers, but he’s done doing public confessions. And even in the best of times he’s never been forthcoming about the state of his game.

We have no idea what’s going on in his marriage. He doesn’t seem to have an idea what’s going on with his swing.

His neck hurts. His neck doesn’t hurt.

“You don’t need to know,” he told a questioner who asked about his health at the Memorial.

What we do know is that he’s a shell of the player he was 10 years ago, or even 10 months ago. His short game is still magical enough to get him through the day, but he hits it so sideways off the tee that it’s hard to see how he can compete in a tournament where the rough figures to be both deep and nasty.

He no longer has a swing coach to help him through the day, though that might not matter. Hank Haney may have done some things for Woods, but he never figured out how to get him to hit fairways with his driver.

Woods may one day work it out himself. He knows his game better than anyone, and talent never goes away.

It won’t, however, happen at Pebble. Winning on one leg at Torrey Pines was easy compared to winning an Open without a clue on the tee.

And it might not happen soon enough for Woods to have a realistic chance of breaking the major championship record of 18 wins held by Nicklaus. He’s been stuck on 14 for two years now, and it won’t get any easier if he can’t win this year at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, another course he has dominated.

Indeed, there’s the real possibility that we’ve already seen both the best and worst of Woods. What we may end up with in the future could be something almost as unimaginable as the scandal that brought him down once was.

We could see a glimpse of it Friday afternoon at Pebble Beach if Woods is struggling to make the cut. We may see it Sunday morning, when Woods has to get up for an early tee time along with other players who have no chance of winning the Open.

He’s still the No. 1 player in the world, has been for the last 261 weeks. But, as the mutual fund salesmen warn, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.

Worst-case scenario?

How about a Tiger Woods who becomes so mediocre we simply stop caring?


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