SirakMay 4, 2010

No Easy Answer

Tiger Woods has always been able to silence his critics by winning. That solution doesn't appear imminent

Tiger Woods' smile belies the complicated state of his personal and professional life.

Tiger Woods' smile belies the complicated state of his personal and professional life.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Questions have never lingered long for Tiger Woods. He has always dismissed them in the most eloquent way possible for a competitive athlete -- by winning. He needs just such an answer right about now. But what complicates things is that even taking the title this week at the Players Championship might not be enough to silence Woods' critics and eliminate his own self-doubt. And winning does not seem to be as much of an issue as merely contending.

Big things have been expected of Woods from the time he appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show" when he was about as tall as a putter. But from the beginning, he has not only lived up to the hype, he has exceeded it. Starting at the age of 15, Woods won USGA national championships an unprecedented six consecutive years. Remarkable.

When Woods turned pro at the age of 20 with tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money stuffed into his back pocket, there were those who asked why he deserved such wealth without having proven himself as a professional. He answered those critics by winning the fifth tournament after he turned professional and then, in his first major as a pro -- the 1997 Masters -- winning by a record 12 strokes. Questions, anyone? Bueller?

The occasional potholes on the road to greatness for Woods, caused by swing changes or injury, were paved over with wins. The first time Woods went 10 majors without a victory, from the '97 Masters to the '99 PGA, he came back to win seven of the next 11 majors. When Woods went 0-for-10 again from the '02 U.S. Open until the '05 Masters, he followed by wining six of his next 14 majors.

Woods not only has always bounced back, he has returned better than he was before. But he has never faced challenges such as those confronting him now. And this week at the Players, Woods tackles a TPC Sawgrass course he has not handled well during his career, with just one top-10 since winning here in '01. And he comes into Sawgrass off his worst performance as a pro -- missing the cut at Quail Hollow by eight strokes.

Woods needs a win in a bad way. But every indication exists that it is he who is in a bad way. In his pre-tournament session with the media at the Players, Woods continued a theme he opened up after missing the cut at Quail Hollow. While he won't give us any insight into what is happening in his personal life -- nor does he need to -- he has given us reason to believe it is taking its toll on him.

Asked how struggles with his game differ now from those in the past, Woods said: "This is more taxing certainly away from the golf course, with a lot of the things, paparazzi following me and all those kind of things." He made a similar reference after missing the cut at Quail Hollow.

When Woods returned after a six-week break in 2006 following the death of his father, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Woods put that into context: "Well, it's certainly different. You know, certainly didn't have the distractions last time getting ready for events. You know, helicopters don't normally fly over you on the range and kind of hover and film you. That wasn't the case then, but that's the case now."

Woods is not dealing strictly with swing issues this time, although significant ones do exists. He is not merely coming back from an injury, although you have to wonder if that four-time surgically repaired left knee is contributing to his swing issues. And what is going on in his personal life will not be placed as easily in the rearview mirror as even the death of his father.

In an unusually candid glimpse into what he is feeling in his heart, when asked if he was surprised that one-in-four tour players in an anonymous poll said they thought he had used performance-enhancing drugs, Woods said: "After what's happened in my life?"

Then he said some words that seem to indicate he is not only not yet ready to win at yhe Players, but also not yet ready to even contend. "Yeah," he said, " It's just a matter of, for me, having the -- getting my mind where it needs to be. And certainly I've made a lot of adjustments in my life, and I've gone through a lot. A lot. And just trying to make sure I get everything organized so I can play."

Woods missed only four cuts in his first 231 PGA Tour events as a professional -- less than 2 percent. He has now missed two cuts in his last 10 starts -- 20 percent -- going back to the '09 British Open, when it would not be surprising if some of the conflict in his personal life began to be discussed behind closed doors at home.

If Woods misses another cut this week at the Players his life will grow even more complicated. The aura of invincibility, which has already taken a major hit, will dim even more. And think of that. We are asking not if Woods will win this week, but if he will make the cut. Remarkable.

Another missed cut and more questions will be asked, questions Woods has yet to answer the way he always has -- by dominating on the golf course. Twice before, Woods silenced his critics with bursts of remarkable golf. Is there another in him? Time will tell. What we do know is that Woods has never faced a challenge like this, something even he is now admitting.