Winter blunderland leaves Tiger out in cold
WAS the shocking performance of Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines merely an aberration or an indication that the 38-year-old father of two had more important things to do than beat golf balls during his six-week winter break?
The answer to that question should become clear halfway around the world in Dubai this week when Woods tees it up with Rory McIlroy at the Emirates Classic, an event both have won before.
Tiger has won twice at the Emirates Club but that appears to be of little relevance right now, judging by his astonishing implosion on Saturday on the South Course in Torrey Pines.
Woods had prevailed in eight professional tournaments at this spectacular cliff-top venue in La Jolla, just north of San Diego, including his 14th and most recent Major championship, the 2008 US Open, establishing him as cast-iron favourite to hold onto his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Yet after a tepid opening 36 holes, which left him wallowing in mid-table, Woods fell asunder in mid-round on Saturday.
The abject 79 that left him three outside the 'second cut' and ineligible for yesterday's tournament climax equalled Tiger's worst round as a professional in the US and was only two shy of the career-high 81 he posted as a vicious storm-ravaged Muirfield on Saturday at the 2002 British Open.
The World No 1 appeared "very rusty" to CBS TV commentator Nick Faldo, while Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel pundit regarded as his most outspoken critic, said Tiger's swing was so short over three days at Torrey, it looked like that of "a 55-year-old man".
Johnny Vegas, who played with Woods on Saturday, has "never seen him play like that before. You don't expect that out of him but it happens to the best. He's human just like the rest of us."
Yet Tiger often appeared capable of superhuman effort on the South Course in the past, most famously when he defied shin fractures and a severed knee ligament to beat Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole play-off at the 2008 US Open.
Woods left the rest of the field trailing by four strokes in last year's Farmer's Insurance Open as he coped masterfully with strong winds whipping in off the Pacific Ocean.
In near-perfect conditions last week, Tiger's baffling inability to find fairways with any consistency off the tee, pitch his ball close enough to score or putt with authority was underscored by his failure to make even one birdie on 12 par-fives he played on the South and North courses.
Ten-under-par for those same 12 holes in the first three rounds last year, Woods played them in four-over last week, his third round unravelling completely at 18, his 10th, when Tiger made double-bogey seven out of the pond fronting the green and a 'fried egg' lie in the back bunker.
He then made an ugly double-bogey six at one, followed by five straight bogeys, before breaking this nightmare sequence with a birdie at seven, Tiger marking the achievement with a deep, theatrical bow.
After a duffed chip to 10 feet from just off the front of his final green, Woods sank a 10-foot putt for par to spare himself the embarrassment of his first 80 as a professional in a regular PGA Tour event.
Still, only the club professional, Michael Block was below him.
Inevitably, sections of social media greeted the 79 on Saturday with hysteria. Woods didn't stop to discuss his round but his swing coach Sean Foley soothed: "It's just three days in a long year. I like what I'm seeing in practice, so we'll just continue working and see where it takes us."
Of course, Woods missed the cut on his first outing of 2013 in Abu Dhabi before marching to victory the following week in San Diego. Yet in Abu Dhabi, he failed to make the weekend because of a two-stroke penalty imposed for a rules breach midway through his second round.
He had no such excuse on Saturday after performing with about as much sparkle as any ordinary schmuck with a dose of the post-holiday blues.
If Woods took time out from golf over the festive season, devoting precious attention instead to his two young children, not forgetting a trip to France with girlfriend Lindsey Vonn for the race in which she reinjured her knee, good luck to him.
He flies to Dubai today with a lot of catching up to do. At the Desert Classic, he will face a field including McIlroy, the Ulsterman who fared rather better on his seasonal bow when finishing runner-up in Abu Dhabi last Sunday.
Phil Mickelson also left Torrey Pines concerned about his immediate future after lower back strain forced the 43-year-old to withdraw from the tournament after Friday's second round
It remains to be seen how fit Mickelson will be for this week's defence of his Waste Management Open title in Phoenix, though it would be a major surprise if the left-hander didn't at least give it a go.
Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia surged back into the world's top 10 as he completed his second victory in three events with six birdies in the final 12 holes of his fourth-round 65 at the Qatar Masters, then beat Mikko Ilonen with another on the third tie hole.
Girlfriend Kathy Boehm, who caddied for Garcia as he won in last month's Thai Open, was among the first to congratulate him on Saturday and the Spaniard said: "It's a little easier to play well and concentrate when things off the course are good.
"I hope this is the start of an amazing year," he said after lifting the grand Mother of Pearl Trophy.
"Last year I had a lot of close calls, starting here, so I'm very excited to be able to get my hands on this trophy.
"It's great to set up my year a little bit, to win again on the European Tour," added Garcia, who last triumphed on the circuit when he captured the Andalucia Masters title in October 2011.