JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The excuse at last week's tournament was that he was hitting it too flush. When this one began, Tiger Woods said he was too mechanical. Let's try lost.
It's no longer about playing up to the standard he once set. Since slinking back into the game after a self-inflicted scandal, then battling leg injuries, Woods has been competitive on no more than a handful of occasions. He can't stop spraying his drives, his short game isn't good enough to save him — especially from greenside bunkers — and he isn't making putts. In his opening round at the PGA Championship, that totaled up to a 7-over 77.
To those who expected Woods to come back the way Michael Jordan did after revelations of late-night gambling escapades during the NBA playoffs almost two decades ago — by dropping 55 points on the Knicks the next night, en route to yet another NBA championship — quit holding your breath. Right now, he looks more like Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey.
"I'm not down. I'm really angry right now," Woods said Thursday, both hands gripping the lectern he stood behind. "There's a lot of words I could use beyond that."
Woods has tried changing his swing, his coach and, most recently, his caddie. On this day he started 3 under through the first five holes focused on what he called "mechanical thoughts" — shorthand for the swing changes he and coach Sean Foley have been working on. For reasons he didn't bother to explain, Woods said he shifted his focus to playing the way he used to. He proceeded to play the next 13 holes in 10 over.
"I thought, 'I can let it go,' and play by instinct and feel," he said. "And it just screwed up my whole round. I'm not at that point where I can do that yet."
Woods is not just playing like all those guys he used to treat as extras in the background of his movie; he sounds like them, too. He says he's never far from a breakthrough, from climbing back to the lofty position he once held. The numbers say otherwise. Since 2009, he's dropped more than 100 places in total driving (a measure combining distance and accuracy), sand saves and avoiding three putts.
Yet it's worth remembering that when Woods segued from his first pro coach, Butch Harmon, to Hank Haney, he shot back up the charts. Despite scant evidence to back him up, Woods is certain he will again with Foley, who's new-age approach to the swing involves treating a student's psyche as much as a tendency to lift the head.
"I've been in this process before. I've been through it with Butch. I've been through it with Hank and now I'm going through it with Sean," Woods said. "I just thought this is a major and you peak for these events and once you get to a major championship, you just let it fly, let it go.
"I did," he added, "and it cost me."
If only it were that simple. Reached by phone Thursday afternoon at his base in the Dallas area, Haney said the last thing he was going to do was try to analyze Woods' swing or his mindset from that distance.
"I'll say this, though, from my experience: Tiger thinks about the mechanics of every golf shot he's ever hit. I doubt the problem is that he's too mechanical or not mechanical enough. He hasn't had too many opportunities to practice and play and now he's at a major championship on a very difficult golf course," Haney said. "It might just be that simple.
"It's not easy to change, but every time he attempts it, people say, 'Why does he change?' The answer is that he's always changed — with Butch, then with me — and he always got better. More wins, more top 10s, top 5s and obviously he felt like he could still get better. Now he's got to climb back up that mountain, and believe me, he knows how to do all this.
"But in order to do that, you have to play and practice, get in those repetitions. Since April, he's played, what, five rounds of tournament golf?" Haney said. "You can't compete doing that."
No one but Woods knows how often he practices and whether he's limited by the leg injuries that have required four surgeries dating back to his freshman year at Stanford in 1994. But he's made a habit of playing nine-hole practice rounds, especially recently, curious for someone whose dedication to getting better was once beyond question.
The milestone that matters most to Woods, now a few months shy of 36 and stuck on 14 majors, was Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18 majors. Only two years ago, it resembled a stroll. Now, it's not enough to say the path just got tougher. It seems fair to ask whether Woods has lost his way.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/@JimLitke