Tiger Woods admitted yesterday that emotionally he was at his lowest ebb in 14 years as a professional and that his inner turmoil had followed him on to the golf course.
After his meltdown at the Quail Hollow Championship last week -- where he missed only his sixth cut in the paid ranks -- it is hard to imagine him getting his game back together in time to make a serious challenge for the Players Championship that gets under way tomorrow at Sawgrass, scene of his mea culpa in February.
Woods looked bad then -- a shell of his former self -- and he looked bad again yesterday. His world is collapsing around him, with rumours of impending divorce from his wife, Elin getting stronger by the day. And as a golfer he has turned into the professional's equivalent of a hacker. It cannot last, but it is shocking to witness nonetheless.
In practice yesterday Woods found water on five holes on the back nine and duck hooked his drive into the drink at the 18th. What can he do to turn things around? Was his fourth-place finish at the Masters more fluke than anything else, a week played on autopilot? Was his standard of play in a second round of 78 last week all that we can expect from him right now?
"It's getting better, (although) it couldn't get any worse," a subdued and demoralised Woods said, before joking that the one thing he did well last week was put the ball on the tee peg. "I didn't have any balls fall off tees. It just got worse from there."
Some are now openly questioning the relationship Woods has with Hank Haney, his coach, and Woods hardly gave him a ringing endorsement when asked about the situation, just a curt: "I'm still working with him." And yet he is playing like a man for who golf is the least of his worries at present, and who can blame him?
For the first time since 1996, Woods will not be going into a tournament as outright favourite. This time, he shares that honour with Phil Mickelson -- although, if truth be told, he would not be good value at 25/1. In the past four tournaments in which they have both played Mickelson has had the upper hand -- winning three of them, including the Masters -- and would become world No1 on Sunday if he won here and Woods finished outside the top five. In the first round Woods will partner Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan.
Woods admitted that he had been low in spirits when his father, Earl, died, but was left alone when he prepared for his comeback. This was also the case after his recuperation from knee surgery in 2008. This time, he says, the paparazzi are out in force.
"This is more taxing away from the golf course," he said. "There weren't the distractions last time when getting ready for events. Helicopters don't normally fly over you on the range and kind of hover and film you. That's the case now."
While he is able to find solace on the practice range -- "I can get out there and enjoy it again" -- he has not found a hiding place on the course. In fact, when things start to go awry he looks exposed and vulnerable, words not normally associated with a player many regard as the best there has ever been.
"I've been trying to make life changes," Woods said. "A lot of people when they go through treatment are able to make adjustments in anonymity. I'm not. And that makes it a lot more difficult."
It does not help matters when his peers start openly (or sneakily, depending on your point of view) questioning his behaviour. Almost a quarter of those asked anonymously in a Sports Illustrated survey said they felt Woods had used performance-enhancing drugs. Asked about this, Woods was defiant, but probably shocked.
"I've not taken performance-enhancing drugs, never taken HGH (human growth hormone), never taken any of that stuff," he said. "But everyone is entitled to their opinion." And it is such opinions, for a once proud man, that are weighing so heavily on him at present. And that is a great pity.
© The Times, London