- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

For the first time since his return from season-ending reconstructive knee surgery last June, Tiger Woods is admitting that his body still doesn’t feel 100 percent.

There’s no pain in his left knee, but there’s also no “pop” in his game.

He’s currently averaging 293.5 yards in driving distance, a precipitous drop for the player who overwhelmed many layouts by averaging 306.7 yards off the tee between 2004 and 2007. In his pre-Players Championship press conference Tuesday, Woods acknowledged that the power outage isn’t confined to the big stick.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time before my body gets back to where I can hit the ball the same distances,” Woods said. “I don’t hit the ball the same distance with my irons or my driver. But it’s coming. Each and every week I’m getting a little better. And the body is starting to get a little more comfortable with everything. When you’re away for that long, and I have a whole new leg, it’s going to take a little time.”

Not that Woods has been floundering on his rebuilt leg. After his tuneup at the World Match Play, he has posted top-10 finishes in each of his four stroke-play starts, including winning at Bay Hill, his 66th tour victory. But his last two starts have provided ample proof Woods still isn’t back to his tour-traumatizing former self.

He’s struggled off the tee with his distance and accuracy, putted rather poorly by his previous standards. And perhaps most telling, Woods isn’t closing rounds or tournaments in the extraordinary fashion that once seemed a given.

At last month’s Masters, he was 3 over for the week on Augusta National’s closing duo, a strikingly uncharacteristic bogey-bogey finish short-circuiting his Sunday charge and leaving him four strokes out of the playoff.

Last week at Quail Hollow, the field shuddered when he opened with a 65 for a two-stroke lead. But just when it seemed a vintage rout was in the offing, Woods spent the final 54 holes merely treading water (72-70-72). Once again, he slumped rather than surged down the stretch, playing Quail Hollow’s infamous three-hole “Green Mile” closing stretch at 4 over for the week to finish in fourth, two strokes behind winner Sean O’Hair.

History certainly suggests that this week’s Players Championship is an unlikely location for Woods’ revival. No other course has proved as adept at humanizing the 14-time major champion during his career as TPC Sawgrass, Pete Dye’s sadistic 7,215-yard, par-72 stadium. Woods has won only once in 11 starts at Sawgrass, a course that has induced by far his highest scoring average (71.52) among the 15 layouts Woods regularly visits on tour. In the six starts since his lone victory at the Players (2001), Woods hasn’t cracked the top 10, a skein of futility unmatched by any other in his career.

“Obviously, it’s the best field in all of golf and played on a golf course that is very demanding, and if the wind blows it’s very tricky,” Woods said. “I have come into this event and for some reason haven’t hit it well. The last year I played it [2007], I did, but couldn’t make a putt. It’s been just kind of typical of how this year has been; I haven’t really put all the pieces together, and you have to have that in order to win this tournament. It’s very similar to a major championship. You have to have all the pieces. You can’t hit the ball well and not putt well or vice versa. You have to have everything going together at the same time.”

With 24 members of the current top 25 in the world rankings in attendance, it certainly looks like a fifth major, though perhaps only Tim Finchem and Sergio Garcia would have the audacity to claim as much with a straight face. An uprising from Woods might not strengthen the argument, but it would greatly enhance the gap between the Masters and U.S. Open (June 18-21).

Woods likely does have one thing working in his favor this week: routine. For the first time since the 2007 FedEx Cup, Woods will make his second consecutive start this week. Given his combination of physical rust and contention that he gets better every week he plays, perhaps the only thing missing from Woods’ comeback formula has been a dose of competitive repetition.

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