The pretenders were as obedient as ever and folded early, just like they always seemed to when Tiger Woods was in his prime.

Still mostly ahead of him was a course he knew well, one where he once rewrote the record books. Beside him was a player he knew well, a guy who used to always look for an excuse to blink.

It was the perfect opportunity to put more than two years of misery behind him. The perfect time to make the statement that, yes, he was finally back.

Unfortunately, there's nothing perfect about Tiger Woods anymore.

He used to threaten to make history every time he teed off. Now he just makes excuses, and they all sound the same.

He says he's at peace with himself, and that may well be true. Put him in a red shirt on Sunday, though, and the demons seem to all come back.

It happened last time out in Abu Dhabi, when a mop-haired Englishman who had won only one time in his career stared him down in the final round. It happened again on Sunday at Pebble Beach, where he seemed to be trying so hard not to fail that he gave himself no chance to succeed.

Phil Mickelson blew by him like Woods was playing in the pro-am instead of teeing it up with the big boys. Things got so bad you almost wanted him to move up to the forward tees, where at least his amateur partner Tony Romo was finding some success.

He walked up the 18th fairway to the cheers everyone expected when the day began. But they were for Mickelson, who had walked ahead of him after stiffing a wedge to the final green.

It got worse. Mickelson was already in the hole for his final round 64 when Woods lipped out one final short putt for a big, fat 75. He could have — make that should have — putted out before Mickelson to avoid the final embarrassment, but Woods never really practiced the proper etiquette for finishing out of contention.

For what seems like forever now we've been asking what's wrong with Tiger. Now the question becomes what's wrong with Tiger on Sunday?

The record books will show he lost by nine shots in a tournament he trailed by four on the final day. Even worse, he was thrashed by Mickelson, his playing partner, by a stunning 11 shots.

Say what you will about his game getting so much better that he has been in contention in his four more recent tournaments. This would have never happened to the Tiger Woods of old.

He didn't always win on Sundays, even if it seemed that way. But he was never blown out the way Mickelson disposed of him on a course where he was once untouchable.

"Anything I tried to do wasn't working," Woods said. "What was frustrating was I had a chance, all I had to do was get off to a good, solid start today and I didn't do that."

Actually, the start wasn't all that bad. It was the middle, where Woods missed two short putts in a row and made three bogeys in a row that destroyed what little chance he had left. By then his body language had conceded defeat, even if he hadn't.

To put his round in perspective, only four of the 68 players who teed off on the final day shot worse. On a day Pebble Beach was there for the taking, Woods got taken.

And then the excuses began.

"I didn't hit it as bad as the score indicated, but I putted awful," he said. "I just could not see my lines. I couldn't get comfortable."

For those keeping score at home, he hasn't won a real tournament (I don't count the 18-man invitational he hosts and won in December, though Woods does) in 27 months; hasn't won on the PGA Tour in 29 months. It's been nearly four years since he won his last major at Torrey Pines, and he's now 36 with a history of knee issues.

That doesn't mean he's not going to win again. He surely will, because he's still immensely talented. But those wins will come sporadically instead of in bunches, the way they used to.

The majors will be more problematic. Woods might still win a Masters or two, if only because he knows where to play every shot, every putt, at Augusta National. He might pick up a stray British Open or maybe a PGA Championship, assuming that he can get himself to believe once again that he becomes invincible when he puts on his Sunday red.

The majors are how Woods keeps score, and right now Jack Nicklaus is still ahead 18-14. It was almost a foregone conclusion after the U.S. Open in 2008 that he would catch Nicklaus, but my guess now is he never will.

His personal issues and constant swing tinkering threw him a curve ball that will be tough to recover from. But it's more his putting now, with his nerves betraying him on short putts that were always gimmes in his prime. That happens to golfers as they age, and it's happening to even the great Tiger Woods.

The golf season is well underway, with Los Angeles next week the last tournament on the West Coast swing. The Masters awaits less than two months from now, and it's entirely conceivable his winless streak will be even longer by then.

Tiger Woods in red on Sunday used to mean something.

Now he's become just another player, wearing another color.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg