- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

Considering all the other indignities he’s endured these past 11 months, losing the top spot in the world golf rankings will barely get Tiger Woods‘ attention.

It’s not as though he’s going to miss it.

Being No. 1 doesn’t come with a trophy to wrap your hands around, a jacket to slip into or deposit so much as a dime in the bank _ just a computer printout that lists, in descending order, who’s played the best golf over the previous two-year period.

Besides, Woods hardly needed confirmation of the direction his game has taken since last Thanksgiving. That was the beginning of a sex scandal which led to his shocking downfall from global sporting icon to late-night TV punchline, and turned him _ for the better part of five months _ into a hermit.

Those of us who believed all that ridicule would fuel an almost-instant return to the dominating Tiger of old turned out to be dead wrong.

That prediction wasn’t based solely on the fire in Woods‘ competitive gut or even his burning ambition to overtake Jack Nicklaus as the game’s career major championship winner. With three of this season’s four majors staged at courses where Woods won multiple times, we thought familiarity would be on his side, too.

There were moments of brilliance, to be sure, but moments are all they turned out to be. Woods never looked entirely comfortable on the course, even after his divorce was finalized and some semblance of normalcy was restored to his routine away from it.

When he announced his return, Woods was prepared for a rocky start, expecting to find his groove as he played more and more _ and then, finally, to start winning again. Nothing, though, went according to plan.

He came back at the Masters and finished a very respectable fourth, then matched it at the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach. His reception from the galleries was almost as surprising. Planes towing banners in the skies above Augusta National taunted Woods during his first round back _ “Tiger: Did you mean Bootyism?” read one, referring to Woods‘ interest in Buddhism.

But the galleries on the ground there and everywhere else welcomed him back, tentatively at first, then with more enthusiasm as the season wore on. Yet right around the time he figured to peak, Woods went into another tailspin. At St. Andrews, where he’d won the British Open the last two times it was played over the Old Course, he finished tied for 23rd.

Soon after, he hit rock-bottom.

At Firestone, where Woods had won the PGA tour event seven times in nine starts, he turned in the worst 72 holes he’s ever registered as a pro by nearly every statistical measure. He had another dispiriting performance at the PGA Championship only to exceed expectations by posting a 3-1 record as a member of the losing U.S. team at the Ryder Cup.

When last glimpsed in his singles match there, Woods smoked Italy’s Francesco Molinari by shooting 9 under in the 15 holes they played, including 7 under over the last seven. But earlier in the team matches, Woods was handed his worst defeat ever at the Ryder Cup.

Lee Westwood, who learned he’d supplanted Woods as the world’s No. 1 while sitting on the couch at home Sunday, teamed with fellow Englishman Luke Donald to administer the beating of Woods and U.S. teammate Steve Stricker in the alternate-shot match.

“When you’re playing Tiger, you just seem to up your game a little bit,” Westwood said at the time.

“I suppose he’s got nothing to win, apart from the point, but he’s got a big reputation,” he added, “and it seems like you go out with nothing to lose.”

Officially, at least, Woods is now the pursuer at No. 2. Everyone who ever played alongside him came back with tales to tell about how cold-blooded Woods could be in moments big and small.

No more. Even he doesn’t dare tell those stories about himself.

Every time this season Woods‘ game hit a peak or skidded toward a valley, it unleashed another round of analysis about where his head or his swing _ or both _ were at. Not long after the Ryder Cup, Woods himself sounded like a guy who’d spent a lot of time on the couch.

“I learned a lot about myself, and I learned how things went wrong, why they went wrong, and had to take a pretty deep and introspective look at myself,” Woods said two weeks ago during a video conference call for his Chevron World Challenge, scheduled for December.

“And there wasn’t a lot of things I like about it. But I had to do it, and I did it, and grateful that I did,” he added.

With this week’s HSBC Champions event in Shanghai providing one final chance to grab a PGA Tour win this season, no one but Woods knows what’s going on between his ears. Yet it’s hardly speculation to say some of the tension percolating there leaked into his golf game.

He wasn’t the first guy whose job performance went south in the middle of a divorce, and he wouldn’t be the last to get his bearings back, either.

The only question left to answer is when, not if.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org