As Woods Reemerges, a Cloud of Doubt Looms
By Will Leivenberg under Tiger Woods

Remember a time when you'd never bet against Tiger Woods? What has changed?

What is the biggest difference between Tiger Woods now and the T.W. of pre- Thanksgiving 2009/fire hydrant/scandal?

On the surface, the answer is obvious. He’s not winning. In fact, not only is he not winning, he’s barely competing. Whereas Woods used to play in 15-20 events per year, he’s competed in a mere 20 events between September 27, 2009 (the Tour Championship) – the last event he played before taking his “indefinite break” from professional golf – and the Players Championship this past May (which he didn’t even finish because he withdrew).

The Official World Golf Rankings is another of Woods’ many headaches. The new world rankings this week show Woods’ steep fall to No.28, the highest he’s ranked in 14 and a half years. This is a system that rewards players for two things, competing and high finishes. Unfortunately for Woods, both of these factors have been elusive in his last two years.

On a deeper level, like loyal subjects in perpetual awe of their faultless King, we came to anticipate, even expect, Woods to be a legitimate contender every time he tee’d it up. Then, like a whirlwind, when his personal life plummeted, his professional career was acutely affected.

What is missing now is that expectation. That sense of knowing.

Knowing hat he can shoot four rounds in the 60’s. Knowing that he can maintain a lead after 54 holes. Knowing that he can sink the clutch putt.

Although there have been a variety of consequences, the most potent effect is that his peers are no longer intimidated by him. This goes especially for the generation of 20-somethings who never had to face off against Woods in his prime.  Realistically, in a field of McIlroy’s and Donald’s, Day’s and Johnson’s, who is willing to bet on Woods?

As Rick Reilly said of Woods,

“You need to realize that when you come back, you’ll no longer scare anybody. Unlike the old days, you can only win with your clubs now, not your scowl and not your jet and not your caddie, whoever that’s going to be.”

Whereas Woods used to be a synonym for certainty, he’s gradually drifted into the realm of doubt. Although there have been glimpses of vintage Tiger – like the bold surge he made on the front nine at the Masters this year – there’s still a glaring void. The fist pumps and roars, club twirls and swagger feel almost empty.

Maybe Reilly read Tiger right.

“All you are right now is a guy with injury problems, swing problems and monstrous public-relations problems. You’ve lost your wife, your swing, your coach, your caddie, your health and your good name, all in 18 months. You may have roughly $500 million, but you’re running very low on everything else right about now.”

In the meantime, Woods returns to a competitive setting that has been his bread and butter, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, OH. With 16 WGC victories in his career in 35 starts, seven have come at Firestone.

While he clearly knows this course like the back of his hand, Firestone has as much potential to be a catalyst for his resurgence and renewed chase at Jack’s major championship record as it does another devastating plunge. We will have to wait until Sunday to see whether Tiger has found his way out of the woods.