Finding 'The Old Tiger Woods' is proving a bit tricky
The reports of Tiger Woods's resurrection are greatly exaggerated. His aura remains buried in the past and many of us believe yesterday's latest shortfall, in Abu Dhabi, will only make his return to predominance that much more demanding.
Of course, Woods used the word "progress" when it came to his second top-three performance in his last two official events. For any other golfer that would no doubt ring true, as they regain fuill fitness after labouring for so long and as a radical swing overhaul beds in. But this is not any other golfer – he's Tiger Woods. And whether he likes it or not, the rules are different for him.
"The old Tiger". It's the label one hears all the time. He must hate that image of the imperious front-runner who treated golf's fabled variables with all the respect of a billionaire crapshooter playing with fivers.
Think about it: on the first 57 occasions he either held or shared 54-hole leads he only lost six times; since the scandal surrounding his extra-curricular activity began to emerge, he has lost three times out of five when at the top of the third-round leaderboard. And one of those was in an 18-man money-fest.
Something has clearly changed and the longer he goes without a "real" victory – I'm sorry, the Chevron World Challenge is many things, but it's not a "real" victory – the tougher it will become. Remember the certainty when the man in red went marching down the first on a Sunday lunchtime? No longer. Not even when he's playing with a 34-year-old who has won just one measly title in nine years on the European Tour.
No disrespect intended to Robert Rock, a player who dared to achieve "something I had always believed was beyond me". Yet does anyone really believe he would have disposed of Woods so easily if the scandal had never broken?
By the same token, don't you think Woods's rivals will look at this display and think: "Yeah, he played OK, but he couldn't even beat the player ranked 117th in the world"?
The problem is we cannot resist allowing our minds to race back those few years to the Tiger era. Even those who know him best are guilty of it. Take Hank Haney, his former coach.
"Tiger will win tomorrow, virtually impossible for him not to make at least four or five birdies on that course and he doesn't have to hit driver," said Haney on Saturday as Woods cruised through with a 66. Well, Tiger didn't hit driver and made three birdies, which were flanked by three bogeys. From looking his old self, he started looking his new self – and the reason should be obvious. He didn't believe as much as we believed.
The 36-year-old left the Arabian Desert last night maintaining the problem had been technical, physical even, but not mental. He hit his three-wood further than he thought he would, hit just two fairways as a result and, with a few poor wedges thrown in for bad measure, struggled to cope with Rock's consistency. That was what had changed on the fourth day. For some reason, which he couldn't explain, his ball travelled further.
Maybe he will arrive at the answer and find holes in his inner belief. Maybe he will put his head in these sands and cling to his declaration: "I was just a touch off."
Wager on the latter scenario. After all, since this whole tawdry affair broke, since he became the laughing stock of humanity, he has never admitted to the media that his psyche has been affected by an experience with which very few superstars have had to deal.
Granted, he did agree that it was hard to focus on the day job with all the helicopters whirring over his house. But that's all it was – a distraction. Turn down the volume, turn down the interference, soon it would all return to normal.
It hasn't and now Woods must realise he has to repair his own concentration as well as any faults in his swing. The clock is counting down, but not quite as quickly as the time ticks down on the plausibility of his excuses. At Pebble Beach in a fortnight's time, golf will yearn for him once again to get into contention, but this time finish it off.
The Masters is only four, maybe five, tournaments away for Woods and by then he needs to prove he can produce down the stretch like he used to, like only the greats had before.
Not simply to prove to the punters, or the journalists, none of whom he cares a jot for, but to himself and, just as importantly, to his rivals. When he is sure he can do it, he will do it.