Originally Published: August 8, 2010

What in the world is going on with Tiger Woods?

Sobel By Jason Sobel
ESPN.com
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Here's your latest definition of irony, golf-style:

The hottest issue in the game entering this past week was all of the low scores being produced recently on the most elite levels, prompting many observers to proclaim that the game was becoming too easy. Such conjecture dissipated with Tiger Woods' performance at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where golf's most mercurial figure made this pursuit appear utterly impossible.

On a course where he has triumphed on seven separate occasions during his career and never finished worse than fifth place, Woods posted scores of 74-72-75-77 at Firestone Country Club to close in a two-way tie for 78th place of the 80 players to complete all four rounds.

This week's edition of the Weekly 18 begins with the idea that this result wasn't simply an outlier for the world's top-ranked player. Instead, it might be a sign of things to come.

1. Lost in the Woods

I've been saying for years that it's only a matter of time before Tiger Woods breaks Jack Nicklaus' vaunted record of 18 career major championship titles.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTiger Woods clearly needs help with something. Might a putting guru like Dave Stockton be able to lend a hand?

I've been saying since Woods' personal scandal broke that as a player with greater mental fortitude than his competition, he would successfully be able to separate his private issues from his professional exploits.

I've been saying all season that even if Woods loses the No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Ranking, he remains the most talented player and will prevail in this marathon, if not the sprint.

I've been saying in recent months that any struggles Woods is undergoing are simply temporary, that he will be able to fix his swing, make more putts and focus better, resulting in victory on any given week.

And now I'm saying this: I was wrong.

There were plenty of things to learn from Woods' putrid performance, but each falls under the umbrella of one major theme: He isn't close.

The man with 71 career PGA Tour victories isn't close to winning, isn't close to regaining his form and perhaps most importantly, isn't close to enjoying the game to the extent he needs to in order to remain among the world's best players.

"Shooting 18 over par is not fun," he said after a final-round 7-over 77 that included two doubles and six bogeys. "I don't see how it can be fun shooting 18 over, especially since my handicap is supposed to be zero."

Though he maintains other periods in his career have included similar conflict with his game -- notably late 1997 through mid-1999 -- Woods has never before displayed such outward resignation. In recent years, he's been emotionally explosive when his swing goes awry or a putt fails to find the cup, but at Firestone he appeared despondent.

From the first holes on Thursday afternoon, he played as if he had a plane to catch rather than a tournament to win; his machinations were those of a player simply going through the motions.

That is what is most startling about Tiger's play. He's incurred "off" weeks in the past when he just can't get it going, but only on very rare occasions has his demeanor made it look as though he would rather be anywhere but on the golf course.

What we're now left with, in essence, are the skeletal remains of the world's best golfer. And with that, our opinions of both his short- and long-term prospects must be modified, as well.

At 14 major wins, Woods trails Nicklaus by four, which -- based on his career-long one-per-year average -- would have him tying and passing his boyhood idol in the next 4-5 years. That was never a given, of course -- remember, we're talking about emulating the major championship résumé of Seve Ballesteros from age 35 and on -- but it has certainly always seemed more possible than implausible.

Don't underestimate the effect that Tiger's uncovered extramarital affairs have had on his results. This is a man who treasures his personal life so much that he named his yacht "Privacy," and although he remains reticent to discuss these issues, he allowed on Sunday that, "It's been a long year." There is no statistic to prove how this has affected his swing and putting stroke, but it's all too obvious that his mental advantage is a thing of the past.

When he awakes on Monday morning, Woods will be the world's No. 1-ranked player for the 612th week of his career and 270th in a row. While most of that time has been spent as a no-doubt-about-it leader, he tops this list now only because those in pursuit have failed to catch him, not because he is uncatchable. It would be naïve to think that Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood or another contender won't dethrone Woods soon, much like Vijay Singh did in 2004.

Though the mental and physical aspects of golf come hand in hand, review only Tiger's tangible on-course maneuvers and you'll find a player who is struggling with all parts of his game. Though he drove it, as he says, "on a string" in recent events, too often he has walked away from a round sounding like a mid-handicapper -- when his swing is solid, he can't make putts; and when he makes putts, he doesn't swing it well.

At Firestone, it was the worst of both worlds, as he concluded his performance by stating, "I need to hit the ball better, I need to chip better, I need to putt better, and I need to score better."

What does the future hold for Tiger Woods? That's the million-dollar question -- or rather, billion-dollar question, based on his career earnings and endorsement numbers. Don't proclaim him finished, though. It might not happen at this week's PGA Championship or any other time this year or even early next season, but at some point, Woods will once again play like the man who deserves the No. 1 ranking next to his name.

After all, he's not very far removed from a back-nine 5-under 31 during the third round of the U.S. Open, when he looked very much like the dominant player we've witnessed for so many years.

Any future success, though, remains in doubt. If we've learned anything about Woods this season, it's that whatever we thought we previously knew about his game must be amended based on recent events. For a golfer who used to be automatic on courses like Firestone, he has now ventured into the great unknown.

Three up

2. Hunter Mahan

Entering this season, Mahan was edging dangerously close to transitioning from a young guy with terrific potential to one who was supremely overrated.

Armed with one of the sweetest swings on the PGA Tour, Mahan's talents had netted two dozen top-10 results in his first six full seasons as a pro, but only one victory -- a playoff win over Jay Williamson at the 2007 Travelers Championship. He started earning a reputation as a player everyone in golf believed would be an elite performer, so much so that many of his accolades were given to him rather than earned.

In 2007, he was named as a Presidents Cup captain's pick ... and again for the Ryder Cup in 2008 ... and yet again for the Presidents Cup in 2009. That's three international teams for Mahan, none of which involved him playing his way onto the roster.

He won't need to be the benefactor of such a gratuity this year, though, as a second win of the season clinched his spot on the Ryder Cup team headed to Wales.

"I felt my game was good enough to make it on my own and that was a goal of mine this year," said Mahan, who moved from 10th on the U.S. points list to second. "I was in it early and kind of been falling slowly but surely out of it, but last couple weeks the game has been good. I knew it was there. I knew I just had to keep going and keep trusting it."

For the week, Mahan posted descending scores of 71-67-66-64, which is actually nothing new. Last year he ranked 59th in scoring average before the cut (70.51), 49th in third-round scoring average (70.04) and fifth in final-round scoring average (69.45).

Those numbers reveal a player who isn't afraid to take it deep on the weekends and doesn't get unnerved by the big stage. Prevailing at a WGC event certainly qualifies as a bigger accomplishment than his previous wins in Hartford and Phoenix, but Mahan isn't planning to bask in the glow of this one for long.

Immediately after the win, he claimed he would forget about it by Monday morning, with an eye toward backing it up at the PGA Championship. He certainly has the game to win a major, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Mahan's name on the leaderboard once again at Whistling Straits.

3. Anthony Kim

I'm not sure if it says more about Kim's strong start to the season -- he posted first-, second- and third-place finishes before the end of April -- or the parity among his competition, but these remain mind-boggling numbers: After missing three months following surgery on his thumb, Kim had barely dropped in some important rankings, remaining at 10th on the FedEx Cup list and fifth on the U.S. Ryder Cup standings.

The 25-year-old returned to competition at the Bridgestone in admittedly rusty condition, having failed to play a full round in advance of tournament week. And he looked rusty, too, posting rounds of 75-76-69-76 to finish in a share of 76th place in the 80-player final field.

Even so, it was still cause for optimism.

"I felt good," said Kim, who carded eight birdies during the week. "The course beat me up out there, and I expected that to happen. It's a tough golf course, and to play out here with no practice I knew was going to be tough. But at the same time, I learned a lot about what I need to work on, and I actually don't feel as bad as my score showed this week."

After missing each of the past two majors, Kim may not be a serious contender to win this week's PGA Championship so soon after his return, but don't count him out for the upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs, where he could make a serious run at the overall title. And then there's the Ryder Cup, which was the entire reason he opted for in-season surgery. Expect AK to once again fare well in the match play format come October.

4. Mini-tour madness

There were a few incredibly dominant and noteworthy performances on the minor league circuits this week.

Chances are, you remember the name Tadd Fujikawa from a few strong results at his hometown Sony Open, where he annually receives an exemption into the field and shot a third-round 62 last year.

He's now plying his craft on the eGolf Tour, still proving he's got plenty of game. At the Tour Championship this week, he raced to a six-stroke 54-hole lead, then extended that to a 9-shot differential when it was all said and done, clobbering a field that included a handful of former PGA Tour pros.

"This win says a lot for me," said Fujikawa, who will have his Q-school entry fee waived by the PGA Tour as one of the eGolf's top 20 leading money earners. "I'm playing a lot more solidly and confidently. It's good to see my hard work paying off and coming together. This win is a step in the right direction for sure."

On the Hooters Tour, Russell Knox pulled off a rare repeat performance at the Gold Strike Casino Golf Classic. On Thursday, he posted a 10-under 62 to set the course record at Tunica National Golf Club, then went out the next day and bested it by a stroke, posting 61.

"After I set the course record on Thursday I was a little nervous coming into Friday's round because it is usually hard to back up a low round," said the 26-year-old from Scotland. "But things were going my way and I was able set the record again."

According to those in the know, Knox has a ton of game and could make a solid impact in the big leagues over the next few years.

Three down

5. Phil Mickelson

On eight separate occasions this season, Mickelson has had the opportunity to surpass Tiger Woods as the game's No. 1-ranked player. And on each of those eight occasions, he's failed to come through.

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Allan Henry/US PresswireComing into the final round, Phil Mickelson was within earshot of claiming the No. 1 ranking in the world for the first time in his career. Instead, Lefty shot 78 on Sunday.

"If I keep finishing ahead of him every week, eventually it'll happen, but the problem is there's guys behind me that will pass me because I'm not playing well enough right now," Mickelson said after a final-round 78 at the Bridgestone, which dropped him from T-10 to a share of 46th on the final leaderboard. "I've got some work to do to get my own game sharp."

It's been a strange season for Mickelson. He won that little toon-a-mint down in Augusta, of course, and seriously contended at Quail Hollow (solo second) and the U.S. Open (T-4). It's enough to leave us wondering what's wrong with Phil ... and yet, one player recently told me that if the season ended today, he would vote for Mickelson as the Player of the Year.

He now heads to Whistling Straits without much momentum and with some salty memories of his last journey to Kohler, Wis.

In 2004, Mickelson put himself in position through 54 holes at the PGA Championship, but a final-round 2-over 74 left him in a share of sixth place, 2 strokes out of the three-man playoff.

Even so, he views some recent history as reason for optimism.

"I wanted to have a good weekend and get a little bit of momentum going into the PGA and I don't think that that happened," Mickelson explained. "So I'll have to kind of do what I did at Augusta, with Houston the week before. I played like this in Houston and I'm going to have to try to get it turned around here in three days."

6. Lee Westwood, Robert Allenby and Toru Taniguchi

You'll hear and read this phrase countless times over the next week, so allow me to be among the first: There are 98 of the world's top 100 players competing in the PGA Championship.

Yes, it would be a whole lot easier for all involved if we could simply say, "Everybody in the top 100 is competing this week." But alas, there's always gotta be a few guys to spoil it for the crowd.

This time it's Westy, Bob and The Gooch.

On the very week that Westwood could have overtaken Tiger Woods as the game's No. 1-ranked player, he withdrew after two rounds of the Bridgestone and also bowed out early from the PGA due to a right calf injury.

"It's alright at the start of the day and it gets worse as the day goes on," Westwood said after the opening round in Akron. "Unfortunately, when I'm not playing tournaments, I'm not able to put [in] the hard work and golf is a game where you only get out what you put in."

Despite failing to claim his long elusive first major victory, it's been a banner year for Westwood, who finished second at the Masters and the Open Championship in addition to a win at the St. Jude Classic.

In what has been another remarkably consistent (four top-10s, including two runner-up finishes) yet injury-plagued season, Allenby is now on the shelf for 3-4 weeks following a knee injury that occurred while boating.

"I was walking from one part of the boat to another when my right foot went one way and my left foot the other," Allenby, ranked 14th in the world, told reporters prior to missing the festivities at Firestone. "I hyperextended my right knee. It could have been worse, because if I had injured the ACL, I could have missed a full season. I'm so depressed because I spent last week working my arse off to get my game in order and I was ready to go."

Taniguchi has a legitimate excuse for forgoing the year's final major, though. The world's 82nd-ranked player is planning to remain in his home country of Japan, where his wife is expecting to give birth soon.

Despite finishing T-63 and T-60 in the U.S. Open and Open Championship so far this season, respectively, here's guessing Taniguchi wasn't exactly pining to make the long trip to Whistling Straits anyway. In six previous PGA Championship starts, he's never made the cut.

7. Sergio Garcia

At 30 years old and with 16 total points already to his Ryder Cup résumé, Garcia has long seemed like a logical choice to supplant Nick Faldo (25 points) as the winningest individual player in the history of the biennial competition.

Mired in a slump and already a long shot to make this year's European team, it now appears Sergio will be left off the roster for the first time since turning pro.

Following a T-23 finish at the Bridgestone, Garcia told reporters he would compete in the upcoming PGA Championship, then shut it down for two months, which would almost certainly mean he'll be sitting out the Ryder Cup, unless he turns things around in a big way at Whistling Straits.

"It's been a long year," said Garcia, who hasn't finished inside the top 20 in a U.S.-based stroke-play event this season. "I haven't had a nice, long break my whole career."

If the first part of that comment sounds familiar, that's because Tiger Woods uttered the exact same words after his round at Firestone, too. Interesting to see these two players linked together again, considering that at the beginning of last year, Garcia was No. 2 in the world with a chance to overtake Woods for the top spot. He never did and now appears mired in a similar slump.

Three wishes

8. I wish Tiger Woods would admit he needs an instructor.

It's been a few months since Woods and swing coach Hank Haney parted ways and until this past week, the pro's swing has largely appeared more effective ever since. That's not a knock on Haney, who did plenty of sublime work with his pupil; it's likely due more to Woods just figuring things out on his own before having it all fall apart at Firestone.

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Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesHank Haney and Tiger Woods parted company several months ago. Might Woods need a fresh set of eyes to help him find his way?

That said, he needs to be working with an instructor ... but not for his swing.

Woods has admittedly struggled with his short game this year. He was ranked 93rd in putting average and 134th in putts per round entering the Bridgestone and didn't do much to improve those numbers, often looking befuddled on greens he knows so well.

Even so, Tiger hasn't sought the assistance of any short game guru -- at least, not publicly -- instead relying on what his father, Earl, instilled in him from a young age.

"My dad, he taught me all the fundamentals and everything I know about putting. I have always gone back to his teachings when it comes to putting," Woods said recently. "Under pressure, under the gun, when you need to make putts on the back nine, I always revert back to my dad's teachings. That's what I know. I mean, it's worked for 30-plus years."

It's not working anymore. Though Tiger might feel like it's some sort of condemnation of his late father's teachings, he needs to swallow his pride and seek a trained eye to help with this part of his game.

Just last year, Phil Mickelson started working with Dave Stockton and enjoyed an almost immediate impact. Others have seen similar results emanate from similar situations.

Woods has long been one of the world's best short-game artists. There's no reason he can't return to that level, but much like he may have learned in a very different type of therapy, the first step toward recovery is admitting you need help.

9. I wish the following wasn't "news."

The announcement came on Wednesday of last week: "Tiger Woods commits to WGC-Bridgestone Invitational." One by one, media entities around the globe -- this one included -- began crafting their headlines and preparing this story for the masses.

Still, there was one unanswered question: Why?

Yes, I understand that as the world's most prolific athlete and the subject of everyone's interest, Woods' decisions on when and where to play carry greater weight than those of all other professional golfers combined, in some cases.

And yet, I still wonder how and why this is even a news story. I mean, the dude's a golfer. He plays golf. End of story.

(Let's not mistake his commitments to regular-season PGA Tour events for the one he recently -- and curiously -- made to next season's Dubai Desert Classic. Anytime Woods tells us something six months ahead of time, it's newsworthy.)

It doesn't take an insider from Camp Tiger to figure out which tournaments he will play and which he will decline, other than a select few. Woods' schedule rarely changes from year to year. In this instance, Firestone is a course he's never failed to play when healthy. So really, the only news should have come if he had decided not to play instead.

Of course, these stories are basically remnants from earlier this season, when Woods' self-imposed leave of absence left many of us on pins and needles as to whether he would return on a given week or remain in hiding. For example, when he chose not to return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was news. Likewise, when he decided to come back at the Masters, that was news, too.

Since then, though, Tiger hasn't missed a tourney that we normally expect him to play. At this point in the season, it's completely logical to believe that just because he announces that he will compete in a given tournament, the news value of such a proclamation shouldn't be pushed so vigorously by worldwide media that are still searching for anything Woods-related as a big-time story.

10. I wish this guy would become a household name.

The entertainment world has its share of one-named superstars. Soccer, too. But golf? Well, even those known to the masses by a single moniker -- Jack, Arnie, Tiger -- have always been formally addressed on leaderboards by their surnames.

Enter Siddikur. That's right. Siddikur. One name, nothing else. Last Sunday, he prevailed in a playoff over Jbe Kruger to win the Brunei Open.

Take that, Pele!

With a 10-foot par putt on the first extra hole at the Empire Hotel and CC in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Siddikur became the first player from Bangladesh to ever prevail on the Asian Tour.

Eat your heart out, Fabio!

"It is very exciting," Siddikur said. "I'm the first Bangladeshi to play on the Asian Tour and in the two years that I'm on tour, I have finally won a tournament."

Chew on that, Cher, Madonna, Sting, Prince and Slash!

Much like the other one-named heroes, of course, Siddikur wasn't born that way, instead taking the route of baseball player Ichiro and dropping his given first name of "Mohammed." After finishing 84th on the Asian Tour money list last year, he was in 20th position after the recent victory, with four finishes inside the top 30 in five total starts.

For a sport with multiple Richard Johnsons and considerable confusion between Geoff Ogilvy and Joe Ogilvie, it would be cool to see the uniquely monikered Siddikur rise to the ranks of the world's elite, giving golf its first true superstar with just one name.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

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