Tiger Woods is hitting some of his best shots when no one is watching.
That’s typically the case when Woods tries to build a new golf swing, and his third major swing change is no exception. Put him on the practice range at home in Isleworth and he says he goes through long stretches of hitting the ball how he wants. Put him inside the ropes, with a scorecard in hand and TV cameras in the towers, and he has stretches of looking ordinary.
But there is one big difference this time around.
Woods isn’t playing very much.
When he tees it up Thursday in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, it will be only his 10th competitive round of the year, an unusually low number with the Masters around the corner. Woods talks about needing more competition, and most would agree that would speed along the process of revamping his swing. It also leads to a natural question.
Why not play more tournaments?
“Because I have a family. I’m divorced,” Woods replied solemnly. “If you’ve been divorced with kids, then you would understand.”
It spoke to a personal life that remains as much a work in progress as his golf swing.
There was speculation after Woods lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship that he would play the Honda Classic, especially since he is close to moving to south Florida. But that was his time with his 3 1/2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son as part of the “shared parenting” with ex-wife Elin. There are no plans to play next week at Innisbrook, either.
Woods can’t expect any sympathy for a situation he created through serial adultery. Even so, his playing schedule reflects that he’s having to change more than his swing.
When he went through his first big overhaul under Butch Harmon after the 1997 season, Woods played 17 rounds before the Florida Swing. At the start of 2004 under Hank Haney, he played 22 rounds leading to Florida, the traditional start of the road to the Masters.
This year, he has played nine rounds in competition.
Woods started his season at Torrey Pines with four rounds, only two of them under par. Two weeks later he was off to Dubai, where he was in contention until a 75 on the wind-blown final day. After another two-week break came the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he lost in the opening round to Thomas Bjorn.
There is no cut at this World Golf Championship, so he is guaranteed four rounds this week.
It starts Thursday on the Blue Monster, a course where he has won three times and never finished out of the top 10 in four other appearances. That means nothing anymore, for Woods had never finished out of the top 10 at either Torrey Pines and Dubai until this year.
Woods will be in familiar company, which will bring him even more attention.
Because tournament officials relied on the world ranking to determine the groups, Woods will spend the first two days with Phil Mickelson, his fiercest rival, and Graeme McDowell, who in December rallied from four shots behind in the final round to beat Woods in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge.
Not since the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship have Woods and Mickelson played in the same group for the early rounds. What’s strange about this occasion is their form. Woods has gone nearly 16 months without winning, the longest stretch of his career. Mickelson has not won since the Masters last year.
Who could have guessed golf’s two best players of their generation would have one win between them in the last year?
And it doesn’t sound as though Woods is expecting much this week.
“I’ve been through periods in my career where I have not won and I’ve struggled before,” he said. “When you’re making a change with the game and change instructors, it takes a little time. Trust me, we have been working on it. As I said, I’ve shown signs. Unfortunately, it’s in spurts and is not consistent. It has not been for 72 holes yet, so, we need to get to that point.”
After playing nine holes on Tuesday -- including three balls in the water on the 18th hole -- he talked about changing everything about his game, all the way down to how he releases the putter.
“You just can’t have one swing and not have another,” he said. “They’re all interrelated. It’s just something I’ve had to change, and you know, it takes time.”
And most of that time is spent on the range, not at tournaments.
Lee Westwood, who lost his No. 1 ranking to Martin Kaymer two weeks ago, can understand the feeling. Westwood once was No. 4 in the world until he went into a deep slump that dropped him as low as No. 253.
He wasn’t surprised when Woods did not play the Honda Classic last week, even for reasons other than his children.
“When I went through a bad patch, it was a juggling act whether to stay at home and practice and work on your game -- because you get more done -- or to go out and play and risk maybe not playing well and taking another confidence knock,” Westwood said. “So it’s very much in situations like that up to the individual.
“Tiger has got to do what he feels is right, not what everybody else feels is right.”
Meanwhile, another World Golf Championship in on the line. Woods used to own these events, winning 16 out of the first 30. Ernie Els is the defending champion, having held off fellow South African Charl Schwartzel a year ago.
Els spoke about the young players who are thriving now, and don’t have the emotional baggage of facing a decade of Woods at his best.
“I don’t think they will ever appreciate how good Tiger was back then,” Els said. “He could do it again. He’s just got to sort out the new swing again. He’s so mentally strong that he could well dominate again. But at that level, who knows?”