Don't expect a Tiger win at Sawgrass

5/10/2011 - Golf Tiger Woods

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When in doubt, write about Tiger.

That's always been my golf writing motto. It didn't matter whether Woods won or lost, made the cut or did a Friday trunk slam. It didn't matter whether he was single, married or divorced. Didn't matter whether he was 10 shots or 1 shot off the lead on Sunday.

Tiger Woods didn't just move the needle, he ordered it where to go. He was the human highlight factory, the gimme putt of column topics. Give me the choice between watching Woods clip his toenails or watching the rest of the PGA Tour do anything and I'd choose the toenails.

But the motto needs reconstructive surgery. The Tiger of 2011 isn't the same Tiger of 2009 (the last time he won a tour event) or of 2008 (the last time he won a major). The gimme putt has become a 60-footer.

"I miss winning, that's the most important thing," said Woods, who is playing this week at the Players Championship after a month-long medical layoff. "That's how you get to No. 1. That's how you maintain it. You got to win golf tournaments."

Woods is eighth in the world rankings, his worst showing in more than 14 years. He's 69th on the money list. He's 81st in the FedEx Cup point standings, whatever that means. He's scuffling.

Don't get me wrong: He's still Tiger frickin' Woods. People still make a beeline for his name on the leaderboard. They still listen for Tirico, Nantz or Miller to mention his name on the broadcasts.

For his nine-hole practice round at TPC Sawgrass on Tuesday afternoon, there was an ESPN TV crew, two ESPN.com writers and a Washington Post writer following the threesome -- and we weren't there to watch playing partners Arjun Atwal and Mark O'Meara. It was about 85 degrees and muggy (O'Meara's shirt looked as if it had been fire hosed with sweat), but Woods' gallery had to be the largest of the day.

"What a circus," a course marshal said.

A circus? This was nothing. Just think if Woods is in contention five days from now.

But that's the problem. We used to watch Woods and be surprised if he didn't win. Now we watch and are semi-surprised if he challenges. We hope for the best, as opposed to expecting the best.

"I think he's very close," his buddy O'Meara said. "It's been a long road back, but he's an unbelievable talent. I think you all know that. He's been great for the game. It's good for the game when he plays well."

Woods is 35. His surgically repaired left knee must feel like an AARP member. And he also has had problems with his right and left Achilles. That dodgy knee and left Achilles are what kept him out of one of his favorite stops on tour, last week's Wells Fargo Championship.

I walked a couple of holes with him Tuesday. I didn't notice him limping or favoring a knee. Then again, this is the same guy who won a U.S. Open on one leg, so his agony threshold is a little higher than mine.

Still, he hasn't played in a tournament since the Masters in early April, when the knee pain reached red on the injury tachometer in the final round. He didn't hit a practice range ball until Monday. Again, doctor's orders.

"It is what it is," said Woods, who ought to copyright the phrase. "The whole idea is to peak four times a year, and I'm trying to get ready obviously for Congressional [site of next month's U.S. Open]. I need some playing time."

The tour overseers of the supposed "fifth major" aren't going to be thrilled that Woods is using their tournament as a tuneup. But give Woods credit for being honest about it. And give him credit for admitting that this 18-month winless streak is a stunner.

"I've gone through periods like this in my entire career," he said. "There were some down times, but this one has lasted longer than I would like to expect. But it is what it is. You keep progressing, keep playing through it, and I'm going to let that happen."

So in review, Tiger's knee and Achilles are better, but not 100 percent. He has barely picked up a club in the past 4½ weeks. He's taking anti-inflammatories. And, by his own admission, his putting is in the dumper and his short game isn't much better.

Plus, Woods and The Players Championship aren't always on speaking terms. He hasn't won at TPC Sawgrass since 2001 and has only one top-10 finish since 2002. Last year, he had to withdraw in the final round because of a neck injury.

Yet the Vegas smart guys have Woods as the betting favorite this week. They're begging you to wager on him.

Other than that, Tiger is good to go.

Meanwhile, his tour pal Bubba Watson took a well-meaning Bubba bash at Woods a week ago at the Wells Fargo. Said Watson: "I'll just go ahead and say it: I think Tiger is going the wrong way."

Woods' reaction was predictably terse.

"That was interesting," he said.

Will he and Watson discuss the matter?

"We'll talk."

This wouldn't have happened when Tiger was winning tournaments. Few players, if any, would have had the stones to pop off like that. But other than a T-4 at the Masters, Woods has been a nonfactor this season. And until he wins something … anything, let's not mention he needs four more victories at majors to tie Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.

"It's not going to be easy," O'Meara said. "He's getting older. But yet he's still got all the talent in the world. He's the best athlete out here …

"He just needs to get out there and gain some confidence like any of us. It's been awhile, so you've got to take little steps and then you start jogging and then you start running and then you start sprinting."

Right now, Woods appears to be in the jogging phase. It's like watching Usain Bolt forget how to tie the shoelaces on his cleats.

Nothing personal, but until Woods learns how to sprint up leaderboards again, the new motto is, "When in doubt, write about the other guy." It won't be as much fun, but it will be fairer -- especially to Woods.

By the way, I hope the new motto doesn't make it through the weekend.

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.