Woods' love of the game is about to face its biggest test
It is a cruel quirk of circumstance that the next major instalment in Tiger Woods' touring freak show should await at St Andrews, the one Open venue where he is sure to be stalked at every turn by the shadow of his former greatness.
For the past century, Woods is the only man besides Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus to have won multiple Claret Jugs at the Home of Golf and yet he is fated, on the evidence of a US Open performance so pitiful that he was beaten by every player except four, to suffer every shade of indignity at the place that forged his legend. The way he is heading, Woods faces a struggle next month simply to keep his opening tee-shot within the yawning expanse of St Andrews' first fairway.
It was there that Ian Baker-Finch, a mere four years after his Open triumph at Birkdale, in 1991, toe-ended a drive so badly that the ball slewed off 100 yards left onto the adjacent road, eventually coming to rest at the foot of Rusacks Hotel.
So total was the collapse of the Australian's confidence that at Troon, in 1997, it was all he could do to hack around for a 20-over-par 92. His colleagues later discovered him in the locker room, curled up in the foetal position in shame.
Woods, sad as it is to relate, is fast approaching Baker-Finch territory. If you want a clear idea of how far he has fallen since his zenith, when he won the 2000 US Open by 15, just compare his combined scores in 2015 with those of 21-year-old phenomenon Jordan Spieth.
In the tournaments where both he and Spieth have played, the young Texan stands at a cumulative 63 under par. Woods, by contrast, is 38 over. That is a difference of 101 strokes, and the season is not even five-months-old. What was at first an alarming gap is turning into an unbridgeable chasm.
Perhaps the most disorientating aspect of Woods' display here at Chambers Bay, en route to missing the cut by 11, was his reaction to it.
As each member of his threeball, which included Rickie Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen, tumbled out at the halfway amid scenes of shocking collective ineptitude, he was no longer scowling but smiling.
The anger had given way to resignation.
"Who was this guy?" asked the New York Times in astonishment, as Woods tried some gallows humour by claiming he had "kicked Rickie's butt", with a first-round 80 to Fowler's 81.
But how was he supposed to have reacted, short of hiking up to the highest dunes and throwing himself into Puget Sound? Woods this year is in a state of perpetual torment, with every strand of his personal and professional unravelling played out to a global audience watching in grim fascination.
His relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn, which seemed on the strength of their public show of affection at Augusta to have settled him, is over. His game offers not the slightest respite, as Woods adjusts his notion of normality to the extent that breaking 80 feels like a Pyrrhic victory.
The question burning within golf, and haunting every television executive for whom Woods still moves the needle, is how much longer he can bear it.
In 2002, Pete Sampras resolved in the aftermath of a second-round defeat at Wimbledon to Swiss journeyman George Bastl to bow out from tennis on his own terms. Six weeks later, with a win over Andre Agassi in the US Open final, he was done. When you have scaled the peaks, Sampras thought, what is the point of scrabbling around in the foothills?
This fatalistic logic is yet to occur to Woods. Beyond his mulish obstinacy, he also enjoys far greater physical longevity as a golfer, recognising that Jack Nicklaus won three of 18 majors beyond the age of 40.
Woods, who turns 40 in December, looks as fit as he ever has, even if there are plenty who believe that his bulked-up physique has compromised the whippy fluidity of the swing that brought him eight major titles in rapid succession under the tutelage of Butch Harmon.
The more glaring problem is that he looks psychologically scrambled.
From the six-iron that he dug into the ground on his first hole at Chambers Bay to the three-wood that he cold-topped into a fairway bunker, Woods has worn a befuddled air, bereft of the faintest clue as to how to dig himself out of the dust.
Brandel Chamblee, the former PGA Tour player and one of Woods' most strident critics on the US networks, describes this, somewhat dramatically, as the "apocalypse of imaginative power".
The theory is that Woods has handed over ownership of his game entirely to the technophiles who surround him. He talks enthusiastically of the "baseline shift" that he is making in his action with coach Chris Como, a biomechanics student, and of "how the pieces are falling into place", but all anybody can see is an unwieldy composite of other people's ideas.
The days when Woods would spend hour after hour on the range on his own, ironing out any deficiencies by feel alone, have disappeared. The Tiger of 2015 has surrendered to the tyranny of the stats men.
Alas, there is no ready fix for his fundamental anxiety. Fresh from an unseemly bout of the chipping yips, Woods is at the stage where, the moment he crosses from the practice ground to the first tee, he frets about the prospect of another humiliation in the competitive crucible.
Arguably the most staggering fact about his demise is that on every opening hole he has played thus far this year, he has dropped at least a stroke.
Sure enough, Woods began with hapless bogeys in each of his rounds at Chambers Bay, at one point falling on his backside in the fescue.
Hank Haney, who took over from Harmon in mentoring Woods, used to lament how these slow starts were a weakness of his pupil's game. In the context of his recent mental disintegration, they have hardened into a curse.
All, however, is not lost. For all the hollow sympathies extended towards Woods, we can be assured that there is nobody more obsessed with the idea of one last swansong than him.
The memory of his five wins in 2013, coupled with a return to the world No.1 spot, should obviate any danger of him skulking away just yet. One glance at his summer schedule, expanded to an unheard-of seven events in two months, illustrates the sincerity of his commitment to "keep grinding".
That promise springs not only from Woods' commercial imperatives, or from his need to satisfy Nike, but from his genuine love of the sport. Even if that love is being tested as sorely as it has ever been. (© Daily Telegraph)
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