On eve of Masters, the talk about Woods isn't good
AUGUSTA, Ga. – There was a time when Tiger Woods would have responded to the perceived slight in the way he knew best — with his clubs. A 65 on Sunday, perhaps, good enough to slip on another green jacket while Ian Poulter waited at the airport for a flight home.
Getting even used to be easy when life was so much easier. A thrashing on the golf course usually took care of anyone who challenged the great one's supremacy, lest they dare open their mouths again.
Could still happen, of course. Woods tees off Thursday hoping a retooled swing and his intimate knowledge of Augusta National could carry him to a fifth Masters title, and you can't completely discount the possibility no matter how erratic he's been.
More likely, though, is that Poulter was spot on when he said he didn't see Woods finishing in the top five this week.
Best clue why? Woods himself says it's true.
"Well, Poulter is always right, isn't he?" Woods said.
Sure, the words were spoken sarcastically. But the fact they were spoken at all was telling.
The old Woods would have simply responded to the Englishman's comments by narrowing his eyes or shaking his head. There was nothing to say when his clubs could say it all.
He dominated Augusta National just by his presence. There was never any need to check his tee time because you could hear it coming.
"He walked to the range and it was like a freight train arriving," three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said.
For the first time in 12 years Woods is not the favorite to wear the green jacket that goes to the winner. Phil Mickelson is, and the wise guys in Vegas don't even make it close.
At his peak, bettors could put down $20 to win $30 on Woods in the Masters. This week they can bet $10 and win $100, but even the prospect of a big payoff hasn't lured them to put a lot of money on Woods.
"They've definitely figured out over the last year and, especially in this tournament, Tiger is obviously not on his game," said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Woods' fellow players have figured that out, too, though they are careful to avoid looking as if they're dancing on the carcass of the Tiger of old.
Some, like Mickelson, keep quiet, perhaps fearful that the Tiger of old might reappear and start snatching majors away from them. Asked Tuesday whether Woods' problems since his sex scandal erupted might keep him from winning five more majors to break the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus, the normally loquacious Mickelson clammed up.
"I don't have an opinion, no," Mickelson said.
The Europeans aren't nearly as cautious. Rory McIlroy said in a bylined piece in Sports Illustrated magazine's "Golf Plus" section earlier this year that Woods was "playing like an ordinary golfer" and that he doubted he could ever dominate again.
And Poulter said Monday that Woods' shots were too inconsistent for him to finish in the top five this week — though he later sent out a few tweets saying his words were blown out of proportion.
"Note to self when asked about Tiger: always (B.S.) & say what they want to hear, or you will be ridiculed," Poulter tweeted to his 1 million-plus followers.
Just what is wrong with Woods is the subject of debate from the locker room at Augusta National to pubs in Scotland, the birthplace of golf. He insists it is simply a matter of technique and that things will be fine once he gets his swing dialed in, though others believe it runs far deeper than that.
"He still hasn't fully come to terms with the fact that he's not the same person he was before," said Patrick Wanis, a Los Angeles human behavior and relationship expert. "He still has a sense of shame, a sense of guilt."
What is clear is that Woods is a shadow of the player who, 10 years ago, completed the Tiger Slam by winning the Masters and becoming the first person to hold all four professional major championships at the same time. He followed that with another streak after his father died in 2006, winning 18 of 33 tournaments worldwide and had a seven-month stretch without ever losing.
Now he hasn't won in more than 500 days and seems more a curiosity to his fellow players than a threat. There's a new wave of players who are beating him at his own power game and winning the tournaments he used to own.
Once intimidated, now they're not even distracted.
"In the past a lot of guys used up a lot of energy thinking about Tiger and what he's doing," Faldo said. "Now they're doing their own thing and thinking about what they're needing to do."
That's not good for Woods, but it is good for golf. As remarkable as his run was, it had to end sometime so new stars could emerge.
They're going to win, and they're going to talk.
And there seems nothing Woods can do about it.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org