The last place he wants to be

I don't know that I've ever seen Tiger Woods look as tired and sullen as he did Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass.

While it's true that he doesn't have much to be overjoyed about these days, he's always been an incurable optimist.

But the optimist in him appears to have been buried in the rubble of a life devastated by a sex scandal.

Certainly, none of his natural sanguinity was evident as he faced the media after playing nine holes of practice ahead of the start of The Players championship.

Maybe it was the five balls he hit in the water, or the fact that he quit when he realized he'd miss the cut for only the sixth time in his career at Quail Hollow last Friday.

Or maybe it's that he's struggling coming to terms with the fact that his marriage is on life support.

Or maybe it was because his game's gone so AWOL that he's reassessing the position of his swing coach, Hank Haney.

"I'm still working with him, yeah," Woods said of Haney.

Unlike other times in the past when Woods has taken every opportunity to wax poetic about the man he calls Henry, no ringing endorsements followed.

I asked him whether he was at the lowest ebb of his career.

"I've had two different low moments," he said, "Obviously, what I'm going through now and then my father's death (in 2006)."

Had the stress impacted his game?

"Absolutely," he said.

TPC Sawgrass is the last place Woods would've chosen to try to stop the bleeding. He doesn't much like Pete Dye's quirky layout, even though he won his first US Amateur here and also won The Players in 2001.

It wasn't lost on me that when the PGA Tour's Laura Hill asked him how the course was playing - the typical softball opening question at a Tiger news conference - he eschewed diplomacy and called the course "spotty".

Woods spent much of his news conference resorting to gallows humor.

"Well, it's getting better," he said of his game, "It couldn't get any worse."

As to why he missed the cut last week, he said he "didn't hit the ball very good, didn't think myself around the golf course very well, and did putt well, didn't chip well".

"I teed up the ball well to start off ... I didn't have any balls fall off tees. That was good. It just kind of got worse from there," he said.

Woods said he was working on his posture and making sure his swing arc remained wide.

"As we all know, I tend to get a little bit narrow at times," he said.

He said he finds solace these days on the range, unlike when his father died.

"The hard part when my father passed is I really struggled with practicing," he said, "That's when I mourned the most, because that's when my dad taught me all the basics, the fundamentals, and I really had a hard time practicing and working on my game initially."

Somewhat cryptically, Woods hinted that he was making changes to his lifestyle, but that it was difficult in the public glare.

"I've been trying to make life adjustments and life changes," he said, without detailing them.

"A lot of people when they go through treatment, they're able to make these adjustments in anonymity. I'm not. And that makes it a lot more difficult."

If he didn't already have enough on his mind, Woods could lose the number one world ranking this week if Phil Mickelson wins and he finishes outside the top five. Woods has spent 258 weeks at the top, while Mickelson has spent more time inside the world top ten than any other player without ever reaching number one.

"I've had it happen before," he said of losing no. 1.

"Double-D (David Duval) and Vijay (Singh). The whole idea to be no. 1 and to continue being no. 1, you have to win golf tournaments. And I haven't done that in a while."

As for Mickelson, Woods said he and the left-hander had "gone in streaks" throughout their careers.

"I'll get him, he'll get me, and it kind of goes in little spurts," he said. "Right now, he's won a few, and hopefully I can win a few myself."

Mickelson said taking no. 1 "would mean a lot to me".

As he has been for several years, Mickelson was kind to Woods, which wasn't always the case in their earlier years of doing battle.

"As I've gotten older I've come to appreciate all that he has done for the game of golf and me in particular," he said.

"I've also found that I've needed him to help me get my best golf out, and he has pushed me to work harder and he has pushed me to become a better player. And I get motivated when he's back in the field.

"I also feel that when he and I would play earlier on in my career, I didn't perform to my best of my abilities."

Mickelson said he didn't "want to get into" why he didn't play well alongside Woods but said that since 2007 "I believe that when I'm paired with him or compete against him or with him, he gets my best golf out of me, or I find a way to play my best golf."

Just what Woods needs to hear.