Continued from page 1

Another first came at Ridgewood in the opening playoff event. Because of his FedEx Cup ranking _ No. 112 _ Woods teed off so early that he was the first player to hit a shot in the tournament.

“That’s how far I’ve fallen,” he said, a rare glimpse of his self-deprecating humor.

On Saturday morning at Firestone, caddie Steve Williams saw a reporter and asked the whereabouts of another golf writer.

“I never thought this would happen,” came the reply, “but he actually has a later tee time today than Tiger.”

Should anyone find this the least bit shocking?

This is no time to take pity on Woods. He’s the one who created this mess he’s in. But only Woods knows what’s going on inside his head and with his swing.

He split with swing coach, Hank Haney, in May and spent the next three months working out the settlement in a split with his wife.

Woods appears ready to take on a new coach with a new concept. Previous swing changes have taken Woods some 18 months before he figures it all out. Even then, he still managed to win at least one tournament, threaten in a couple of others and have time to eat lunch before his final round, not after it.

Perhaps the only shock is that he’s still No. 1 in the world ranking. That’s as much a reflection of Mickelson, who has had 11 tournaments with a mathematical chance to take over. The next comes at the Tour Championship, and the scenario for Lefty to be No. 1 will not depend on Woods because he won’t be there.

They played together in the final round at Cog Hill for the first time all year, tied at even par. Mickelson was five shots ahead after seven holes, as Woods walked with his head down, not looking the least bit like he was having any fun.

Woods rarely does unless he’s winning.

“You can tell that his game is inches from turning because his speed is back and his putter looks great,” Mickelson said. “I mean, his game is not far off at all. It looks very close to being right there.”

That’s another measure of how far Woods has fallen _ his biggest rival can only offer an encouraging word.

They might still meet again, though certainly not as a partnership at the Ryder Cup. That didn’t work even in good times. Mickelson is the defending champion in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions, where a year ago he took a two-shot lead into the final round and buried Woods.

For Woods, the HSBC Champions is more meaningful than ever. It will be his last chance this year for a PGA Tour victory (this World Golf Championship only counts as one if a PGA Tour member wins it). Woods has gone 14 consecutive seasons with at least one tour victory, three years away from the record held by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Story Continues →