DUBLIN, Ohio -- Summer is officially three weeks off, half the pages on the PGA Tour calendar have been flipped, yet Tiger Woods is still trying to get the training wheels off his 2010 bike.
Car crashes, marital train wrecks, staggering financial setbacks, his first injury-related withdrawal as a pro and some of the ugliest play in his career seemingly behind him, the world No. 1 has so much catching up to do, it's hard to know where to begin.
It's June and Woods has completed exactly nine rounds and six holes. Daylight is a-wasting and there are three major championships set over the next 10 weeks.
That's largely why Woods and journeyman pro Arjun Atwal tore through three rounds Sunday at Isleworth Country Club over the holiday weekend, when the pair barely waited for the ball to stop rolling between shots. No question, Woods is trying to ensure that lost time doesn't turn into a lost season.
"[We played] in carts," Woods said. "In shorts. And fast."
He would love to make short, fast work in his comeback this week at the Memorial Tournament. Three weeks after he was carted off the TPC Sawgrass course with a neck injury, Woods is trying to keep his season from turning into more of a whiplash-inducing, did-you-see-that sideshow. He's way behind schedule, the questions still greatly outnumber the answers, and more prying eyes are watching him now than when he was at the peak of his powers.
"I've played nine competitive rounds this year, so most of the players have played a lot more than that," Woods said Wednesday. "It's going to take a little time, and hopefully that time will be short, not something that takes me six more months from now."
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The past six months were brutal enough, obviously. Back on his feet at Muirfield Village, a course where he has won four times, Woods can use some positive reinforcement -- it's the first time all season he has defended a title.
With the U.S. Open a mere two weeks away, he's in a veritable two-minute drill, trying to shake off rust, the final vestiges of a neck issue that has largely passed and myriad personal issues that continue to mount. Regress has trumped progress at every turn.
Tournament host Jack Nicklaus, who earlier in the year pointed to the importance of 2010 as it relates to Woods breaking the Bear's record of 18 major championships, believes the next four days could be a harbinger of things to come, at U.S. Open site Pebble Beach and beyond.
"A lot of it will depend on this week," Nicklaus said. "I think that's why he's here. He felt like he needed preparation, because he found that he struggled a little bit at Augusta. He played pretty well, but he struggled from a not-having-played standpoint as he came down the stretch.
"I think this is a big week for him."
As ever, the latest questions about extraneous issues occupied much of Woods' time as he tried, yet again, to get his golfing sea legs under him. His neck strain, which prompted his withdrawal in the middle of the final round three weeks ago at the Players Championship, has responded well to treatment and Woods doesn't envision any lingering issues. The problem, in his mind, first appeared before the Masters as he tried to make up for the months when he didn't practice over the holidays because of the philandering scandal and sex-rehab stint.
"I had a hard time turning back," he said of his neck. "I had a hard time turning through. And the headaches were just unreal at times."
|Tiger Woods tries to get loose during a practice round at Muirfield. (AP)|
"I hit every shot forward," Woods smirked. "It was great."
It's a start. After missing the cut in Charlotte with a second-round 79 that represented his worst score as a professional on American soil, just being able to find the ball was a sign of progress. Compounding his travails on that front was the surprising exit of swing coach Hank Haney last month, a resignation transmitted to Woods via cell-phone text message.
"We're just taking a break, right?" Woods texted back.
Not hardly. Haney, who worked with Woods for seven seasons, expressed relief at finally being separated from the criticism and circus associated with his client, which certainly predated the scandal and only has heightened since. The bandwagon is smaller these days -- be it from the exodus of million-dollar sponsors, fans, employees and associates.
"I understand it," Woods said of Haney's exit. "I mean, there's a lot going on, as we all have seen. I totally understand it."
Woods said he has no plans to hire another coach anytime soon and would try to self-diagnose his issues via videotape. He might start by eyeballing the film from the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he won by 15 shots. A return to that venue is just two weeks away.
Then again, Woods might already have replaced Haney and nobody would know the difference. Asked pointedly why he declined to disclose his neck issue when he was specifically asked about his health at Sawgrass and claimed everything was fine, the ever-suspicious Woods looked his inquisitor in the eye and reverted to his customary combative mode.
"You don't need to know," Woods said tersely.
Gee, and I thought we lowly beat writers were supposed to write salient stories about golf. Our bad.
In a roundabout way, the verbal slap-down was another sign that normalcy is returning to Camp Woody, where happy pleasantries were never exactly a part of his daily relationship with fans and media. Getting back to the grounds at Muirfield Village should only hasten his return to relevance, as evidenced by his birdie-eagle start in a Wednesday Skins game with nine other players, including Nicklaus. Last year in the final round, Woods hit 14 of 14 fairways, shot an impeccable 7-under 65 and stormed to the title.
"I played here in the [U.S] Amateur and I absolutely loved it then and loved it as a pro," he said. "I've always had good memories here. It's nice to come back to a golf course when obviously I haven't played a whole lot this year, but it's nice to come back to a venue where I have played well."
Woods paused, then added some self-deprecation to the mix. After all the jokes made at his expense over the past few months, he threw his own barbs out there.
"Maybe this time," he said, "I'll get four rounds in and get ready for the Open."