|Over his last two starts, Tiger Woods has hit 28 sand shots in 54 holes. (Getty Images)|
SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- He hadn't been seen in the professional neighborhood for two months, and like with any business environment, there was more than a passing interest in how the competition was looking.
As Tiger Woods wandered to the 10th tee in his pro-am round this week, which was situated just a few feet from the practice putting green at CordeValle Golf Club, a half-dozen PGA Tour players stopped in their tracks and watched.
"Always," veteran John Rollins said, standing nearby.
There was plenty to rubber-neck about Thursday, when Woods' latest comeback was marked by so many sloppy shots and skids, it looked more like a crash on U.S. 101, the busy highway located just a mile or so down the hill.
In yet another in his series of much-anticipated comebacks, this time after a seven-week layoff in which he played routinely two or three rounds each day, Woods not only shot a 2-over 73 and skidded to T86, he was drilled by an amateur playing partner.
A poor start and a mid-round double-bogey added up to another familiar figure for Woods, who failed to break par for the sixth consecutive round. For the umpteenth time in the past two seasons, he putted like he had the hiccups, missing three times from inside six feet.
"So it was just a downward spiral," Woods said of his day on the greens.
A spiral that's hard to spin in a positive fashion. Once again, when it seemed like it couldn't get much worse, Woods will need to mount a rally on Friday morning to keep from missing consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour for the first time in 16 seasons as a professional.
The one-day takeaway served only to reinforce, not erase, what fans have seen over the two-year winless streak: The former world No. 1's aura seemed shot, and the line of talented players seeking to supplant him now winds down the street and around the corner.
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Woods' eighth competitive round since the Masters looked eerily similar to his unsightly missed cut in his last start, at the PGA Championship in mid-August. He left a ball in the sand from a greenside bunker. His aim and putting touch were rumors. He popped up a tee shot on the downhill fifth hole, taking a huge divot, that traveled 228 yards. His new caddie, Joe LaCava, earned his money raking traps alone. Over his last two starts, Woods has hit 28 sand shots in 54 holes.
Few anticipated such a struggle, frankly. Woods was exuding nothing but sunshine when he blew into San Jose this week, finally eligible to play in a tour event after missing the four-event FedEx Cup. Swing coach Sean Foley said Woods had spent 8-10 hours daily working out or honing his game -- the first time Woods has had uninterrupted, healthy practice time since the 2010 offseason.
Playing at his new home course in South Florida, Medalist Golf Club, Woods shot a course-record 62 playing in a group that included former Minnesota Vikings star Ahmad Rashad. In NFL terms, that score was about as relevant as a seven-on-seven football result.
Worse, as Woods explored the foothills of the California Coastal Range, the contrast with his amateur playing partner became all the more stark. In the two years that have passed since Woods last won on the PGA Tour, 29 different players have won for the first time.
Then there's the line of guys waiting their turn at him. Not long ago, somebody like UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay, all of 19, would have needed a diaper change at the turn when paired with Woods. It was like taking candy from a baby, in reverse.
Cantlay, the top-ranked amateur in the world, was six shots ahead of Woods after 12 holes and finished with a 2-under 69. Cantlay never once blinked, kept up with Woods off the tee and was more polished in every visible aspect of the game.
"It's the first round of a tournament, so it doesn't mean anything," Cantlay said, charitably.
Twitterville was alight in puns like, Cantlay beats Cantplay.
Cantlay, a decidedly low-key kid who is ditching school this week, sounded positively Tigeresque when pressed for an answer on whether he was surprised at the extent of Woods' sloppy round.
"It was what it was," Cantlay said.
What it wasn't was a step forward in any fashion. Mind you, even at a fading No. 51, Woods is the fourth-best player in a tepid field according to the world ranking, so the score needs to be put in a different context. Woods' aura and era never looked more absent and over, especially given the paucity of stars in the field. Of the 132 in the Fry's field, 123 began the week ranked outside the top 100.
Woods wanted progression, and for the first day, anyway, saw only regression. For the stat-scrutinizers: He missed half the greens and half the fairways. He whipped out his driver 12 times, finding the sand four times and the rough on three occasions.
Given that this week is close to a one-man show, people noticed. Playing just a few miles down the 101 from where he attended college at Stanford, plenty tried to cheer him along, but the caustic comments were there at times, too. After Woods missed a three-footer for par on the third green, a male fan said, "Don’t worry, Tiger, there's a Showgirls in San Jose."
When Woods hit a mediocre approach shot on the eighth, a man in a San Francisco Giants jacket twice said aloud what plenty of others were thinking by that point: "Not what it used to be."
At least there were few witnesses who will remember it. A Santa Clara Sheriff's deputy estimated the crowd following Woods at around 2,000 at its apex, though a steady rain and his deluge of bogeys scared off most of them by the back nine.
The low point was easy to find, unlike a couple of Woods' wayward shots. On the par-5 12th hole, after he pulled a drive that only traveled 243 yards, he tried to hit a layup shot out of the rough and yanked it deep into a hazard and lost the ball. He made a double-bogey.
Barring a U-turn in the second round, Woods is looking at another career worst. In 259 starts as a professional on the PGA Tour, he has never missed consecutive cuts.
The general perception is that Woods might not be playing at all this week if not for Fred Couples, the captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team, who asked Woods to add a tournament or two before the matches next month. The controversial selection of Woods to the team was hardly diminished by how he played Thursday.
"I'm just playing to get competitive and win a golf tournament," Woods said. "It's not about validation. It's about going out there and playing, and right now I'm six back. I need to put together a good round tomorrow and gradually piece my way back into the tournament."
Even after two months of solid prep work, there are more pieces to cobble together than most would care to count.