ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Colin Swatton, the longtime instructor and caddie for Jason Day, made a point this week to watch Tiger Woods hit balls on the practice range prior to the Open Championship. He was shaking his head at what he saw.
"I swear, he never missed a shot," Swatton said. "I watched him for an hour the first time, and he hit it great. He's still a top-10 iron player in the world."
But in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is never wrong even if it seems regularly inaccurate, Woods isn't among the top 200 on the planet. And that was the player who showed up on Thursday at the Old Course at St. Andrews, one of those venues he used to own when he owned his swing and, consequently, the competition.
The man who spent 683 weeks as world No. 1 struggled again in a major championship, falling grossly behind early, battling gamely, but failing to summon the necessary accoutrement of shots to do better than a 4-over-par 76. The effort was his worst as a pro at St. Andrews, where he won the Open in 2000 and '05, and his second-worst opening round in 19 starts. In addition, it marked his third straight round of 76 or higher in a major.
"There were a lot of unforced errors out there, especially early. It was not an ideal start," said Woods, who bogeyed five of his first 10 holes - and those are the easy holes. Only one other player, 58-year-old Nick Faldo, made as many as four bogeys on the outward nine.
So what is dogging the 14-time major champion at an age, 39, when he still should be a viable contender and who just two years ago won five times to run his PGA Tour victory total to 79?
“It’s tough to see," said Day, who was in Woods's group with Louis Oosthuizen. "The good thing about it is I saw him struggle a little bit before, and he came back and got to No. 1, so I know that he can get back out of this. It’s just depending on how much he wants it.”
A fellow competitor, one who has known the ultra-competitive Woods for years, says that Woods "has lost the desire to play. Except for weeks like this, he isn't all that interested." The Tiger that burned so bright has only emotional embers in the furnace, and that is not enough to prepare properly for and compete at the level he is accustomed to - or that he clearly needs.
The fire can be rekindled, if it hasn't first expired.
That doesn't appear to have happened to Woods, who said Thursday: "Motivation is never a problem with me. Never a problem."
Well, he does have promises to keep - sponsors and a charitable foundation to serve and support. Majors still to win, if he can muster the will. Miles to go before he sleeps.
Woods still appears to battle out there, still grinds. He doesn't mail it in. He cares enough that when he dumped his approach into the Swilcan Burn on the opening hole, a look of searing pain washed over him as he banged the shaft of his club against the bill of his cap. The bogey, followed by another at the second, sent him on his way to an odyssey eerily similar to his clumsy 80 in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
"Discouraging, yeah. I was a little angered a little bit," Woods said, smiling slightly. " But I hit it really good coming home, and I made some good clutch putts. I just needed to put those balls in position for birdies instead of pars."
With the wind shifting out of the north, the final seven holes played increasingly difficult, but Woods found a way to navigate them in 1 under par.
As confirmation to what Swatton saw in those pre-tournament range sessions, Woods warmed up on Thursday splendidly. Then he chunked his first two shots. Which ignited a memory from his victory in the 2001 Deutche Bank Players Championship of Europe. "I hit the 50-, 100-, 200-, 250- and 300-yards signs, and I started off bogey, double bogey," he said. "That's the way it goes."
Only now when it goes, he can't get it back, the product perhaps of his constant tinkering with a swing that once was so pure and repeatable.
"I think we're all shocked as players how good Tiger Woods is and has been to see him struggling the way he is right now," Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner, said after opening with a 72. "I think it speaks volumes about what this game is all about. I'm standing here talking about lacking confidence and belief in what I'm doing [and] you see a guy like that whose career highlight reel would take days to watch. So it's an amazing game. It's a tough old game."
It's a game with a long memory and a short attention span.
Dustin Johnson is only one example of that. Not since Gary Player in 1974 had anyone led after the first round of the U.S. Open and British Open in the same summer. Johnson, a pure pugilist, fired a 7-under 65 at St. Andrews Thursday after a 5-under 65 at Chambers Bay last month that gave him a share of the top with HenrikStenson. In the same two rounds that Johnson accumulated his 130, Woods has needed 156 strokes.
Discouraging? Yeah. It's a tough old game. And it tears your heart out whether or not your heart is in it.
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