Commentary

Round and round we go with Tiger

Originally Published: March 9, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

DORAL, Fla. -- Nobody is terrified of Tiger Woods anymore. His golf swing is in the Betty Ford Center. He hasn't cashed a winner's check since 2009. Johnny Miller is comparing his downfall to Mike Tyson's descent into post-Buster Douglas hell.

The dogpile of Woods critics, disbelievers and skeptics keeps swelling like an ankle sprain. Rory McIlroy, 21, delivers a verbal uppercut one week, followed by 71-year-old Lee Trevino jabbing him the next. Suddenly, the question isn't when Woods will win again, but if he'll win again.

The question needs a delete key.

Woods hasn't won on tour in about a year and a half. For him, that isn't a slump, it's golf history. People monitor the winless streak as if it has its own heartbeat.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesTiger Woods might never regain the form that saw him win the Tiger Slam after a victory in the 2001 Masters. But before climbing that mountain, he has to find the winner's circle again.

Thursday morning, at 11:51, Woods will tee off on the 10th hole of Doral's Blue Monster. He is here for the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but the tournament itself doesn't really matter. This isn't about reversing the Tiger clock but advancing the hour hand.

"I have to change everything," Woods said Wednesday.

He was discussing the third major swing change of his career, but it could have been about his life, too. He has taken a lift, clean and replace on both.

It's hard to win anything when you're reconstructing your golf swing and your personal conduct at the same time. It's like trying to change clothes in an airplane bathroom.

Woods behaved poorly and paid a profound price for his indiscretions and infidelity. And he has played poorly for months going on years. The trophy drought has lasted longer than even he thought possible.

"With Mr. Tiger Woods, you know what, he's just in a different place," said Bubba Watson, a friend of Woods. "His life's different right now. Do I think he's going to be back? Yes. Right now, he's worried about his kids, making sure they are in the right place in their [lives]. When his mind gets back, he's going to be better than ever. It could be this week. It could be next week. It could be any time."

Or it could be months. Nobody, including Woods, knows when the tumblers will click into place and open the combination lock.

Woods, 35, has a history of changing swings and coaches. He left Butch Harmon for Hank Haney, then Haney for Sean Foley. But he has never changed coaches, swings (down to even his putting stroke) and marital status all at once.

"Changing a motor pattern just takes time," Woods said. "It just takes a lot of reps."

Again, Woods was talking about his golf swing. But when someone later asked why, if he needs more reps, Woods doesn't play in more tournaments, the answer, for Tiger, was surprisingly candid.

"Well, because I have a family," he said. "I'm divorced. If you've been divorced with kids, then you would understand."

I have no idea what Woods is doing with his swing or why he's doing it. I do know that each time he has reconfigured it, he eventually has won again. And won big.

McIlroy, the obscenely talented kid from Northern Ireland, isn't impressed with the latest version of Woods -- and said so in a recent Sports Illustrated story. But that's because he was never grinded into mulch when Tiger was in his absolute prime.

"He doesn't have any scars," said manager Chubby Chandler of his client McIlroy. "He doesn't have any history. ... When Tiger was doing everything, Rory was 10."

But Ernie Els does have the scar tissue caused by playing in the sweet spot of the Tiger Era. No player has more runner-up finishes (7) to Woods than the Big Easy.

"[The young players] didn't have to play under a guy that was so dominant and I don't think they will ever appreciate how good Tiger was back then," Els said.

Trevino wasn't 10 when Woods was blowing away fields. But that didn't stop him from saying recently that Woods needs to fire his instructors.

Everybody has an opinion, especially when Woods is in full scuffle mode. Nothing new there.

Remember in April 2005, when Woods had gone 10 consecutive majors without a victory? "Guys weren't scared anymore," Hunter Mahan said in Robert Lusetich's book on Woods, "Unplayable." "They figured out he could be beaten."

Woods hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. These days, he'd settle for a minor.

Believe it or not, the hard part is over for Woods. Nothing can be worse than the 2010 that Woods endured, when his marriage and reputation crumbled like stale corn muffins. Scandal and divorce were his Buster Douglas.

"When he's playing good, he's the best in the world," Watson said. "He's the best ever. … We've seen him try a new swing. And two years later, he's the greatest golfer again and then everybody's happy. Then he tries a new swing and everybody is down on him and then he's back. It's just a big cycle."

There's no way to know exactly where Woods is in the latest cycle. He's not at the bottom; that was last year. But he also isn't anywhere near the top. Not yet.

"He could do it again; who knows?" Els said. "He's just got to sort out the new swing again. He's so mentally strong that he could well dominate again."

Yes, he could. But that isn't the point right now. The point is to win something ... anything. World domination can wait until later.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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