Has Tiger passed the point of no return?
TIGER WOODS has washed out of the elite world top-50 for the first time since October 20, 1996 and his first few months as a professional.
Woods was No 51 in the official rankings issued yesterday, a profound and deeply symbolic moment in his nightmarish descent into mediocrity since November 2009.
Arguably the greatest golfer of all time and certainly the richest, Tiger has been dumped by all but a few of his most loyal sponsors, lost his golf game and surrendered his aura of invincibility in 22 months of infamy, injury and humiliation.
Having missed last month's prestigious FedEx Cup play-offs, Woods this week makes his first appearance on the PGA Tour's 'second tier' Fall Series in the Frys.com Open at the CordeValle Resort near San Jose in his native California.
With just six rounds of competitive golf played since April's US Masters, Tiger desperately needs game time if he's to have any chance of justifying the controversial wild card from US team captain Fred Couples in November's Presidents Cup in Australia.
Woods remains a big draw and the effect his presence will have on TV ratings for the Presidents Cup might explain, in-part at least, the decision to give him a pick at the expense of richly deserving US PGA winner Keegan Bradley.
The organisers of the Frys.com Open expect attendance figures to soar from 30,000 last season to 70,000-plus this week, with 300 media credentials -- three times more than 2010 -- already issued.
During a Presidents Cup conference call last week, Tiger was typically upbeat about his prospects, saying: "I'm really excited to get back out there and compete, knowing that I'm finally healthy enough to do it now.
"I've practised, something I'd not done in preparation for Akron and the US PGA. Now I've actually practised and gotten even stronger in my lifting sessions, things are definitely shaping up quickly."
That assertion would be more believable if Tiger hadn't spun exactly the same line before missing the cut at the PGA Championship.
Frankly, with every department of his game so far out of kilter and desperately in need of repair, it will take a near-miracle for Tiger's harrowing freefall to bottom out before the end of the year, never mind the end of this week.
Until recently, Woods had been badly hampered by the injury to his left knee and Achilles tendon, which forced him to withdraw after six holes of the Players Championship at Sawgrass in May and pull out of this summer's US and British Opens.
This, in turn, was a setback to his attempts to bed in his new swing, an effort he had been working on for 13 months along with new coach Sean Foley.
However, this was only the tip of the iceberg for Tiger.
Read between the lines of his media conferences this year and you find a man whose new family circumstances already made it difficult to find as much time as before to practise and play.
"I don't practise as much as I used to, but that's a good thing," he said in April, for example. "I'm able to spend more quality time with my kids, and that's more important than what I do on the golf course. But what it means is I have to be more focused when I do practise. My time is more limited when I do get out there."
Asked why he didn't play more tournaments, Woods replied tersely: "Well because I have a family. I'm divorced. If you've been divorced with kids, then you would understand."
With less time at his disposal and his putting, scrambling and wedge play already in serious decline before he decided to dump coach Hank Haney and completely revamp his swing with Foley in the summer of 2010, it's little wonder that Tiger is touching terminal velocity as he plummets down the world rankings.
The facts speak for themselves. Woods had recovered sufficiently from major knee reconstruction in the wake of his heroic victory at the previous year's US Open to win six of the 19 tournaments he played in 2009 BC (before crash).
With nine other top-10s to his credit, he lifted the FedEx Cup for the second time in two seasons.
After his Cadillac Escalade slammed into a fire hydrant and a tree that ill-fated Thanksgiving Night, Tiger's golf game has hit the proverbial wall since. Virtually every facet of his performance has gone into steep decline, from putter through to driver.
His loss of form on the greens is most perplexing of all. Tiger's aura of invincibility used be squarely founded on his putting and the near-certainty of his opponents that he'd sink every putt that mattered inside 10 feet.
Not any more. Woods has slumped from fourth on Tour in 2009 to 58th this year when it comes to the percentage of putts he converts from inside five feet. His conversion rate from five to 10 feet has imploded from ninth (62.09pc) two seasons ago to 167th (50.77pc) now.
At his imperious best, Woods exuded self-belief over every putt. Yet that sense of entitlement plainly has evaporated. Like the rampant Tiger of old, it's probably gone forever.
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