MELBOURNE, Australia — After his best finish of the year that looked close only on paper, Tiger Woods went from shaking his head to chuckling before he even heard the rest of the question.
After spending a full year out of contention, will he have to teach himself how to win again?
“No,” Woods quickly replied, still laughing. “No, no, no.”
There is no reason for him to be alarmed, although some of the numbers are startling. He went an entire season without winning for the first time in his 15 years as a pro. He was at least 10 shots behind the winner in six of the 12 tournaments he finished. Only once this year did he go into the weekend within three shots of the lead.
And the last time he really felt the heat on the back nine Sunday? Maybe the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and that was lukewarm.
“Saturday at the U.S. Open was probably it,” Woods said.
He is in the process of changing his swing for the fourth time under a third teacher, and Woods realizes it will take time. In some of his most candid remarks about going to Sean Foley for help, Woods said he was waffling about a change the week of the PGA Championship.
“Every night, I was trying to figure out, ‘Should I actually do this or not?’ Because I know what the undertaking is,” he said. “I know how much effort it takes, how many swings you have to make in the mirror, how many things you have to think about. Do I really want to do that again?”
By all accounts, Woods is picking up on Foley’s concepts much quicker than he did with Butch Harmon and Hank Haney. If history is any indication, he will return to win tournaments in the bunches, majors included.
But even in the midst of two big changes since turning pro, he still managed to give himself chances. He was still able to measure his progress on the back nine Sunday. In 1998, when he won only two tournaments, he also had five top 3s, including two playoff losses. In 2004, when his only wins were the Match Play Championship and his last event of the year in Japan, he had six top 3s and twice finished one shot out of the lead.
This time, however, it’s more than a swing change.
His whole life has changed.
Woods has always said he doesn’t enter a tournament unless he thinks he can win, a goal that has never changed. He also conceded in an interview last week that there were times this year when winning wasn’t always at the forefront of his mind.
His marriage was crumbling. His image had been shattered. His mystique was being questioned.
Along with studying a pin sheet, he was poring over divorce documents. He wasn’t just trying to map out a strategy on how to play a golf course, he was trying to figure out how to stay involved with his two children.
“This summer,” he said, “was very difficult.”
There have been flashes of great play, just not for long. He was tied for the first-round lead at The Barclays, then began his third round by hitting a 5-wood off the property. He played six flawless holes at Deutsche Bank Championship, but all that did was ensure he made the cut. At the Ryder Cup, he played his final seven holes in 7-under par. And at the Australian Masters, he played h is last six holes in 6 under to finish fourth, only three shots behind Stuart Appleby.
Finishing high on the leaderboard only reminds him of how many shots he threw away during the week, mainly with his putting.
“I can do this in streaks,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t done this for an entire round. One of things when you’re making changes in the game is that it takes time. I’m pleased with some of the progress I’ve made. The streaks are now lasting longer. I still need to do it for an entire round. And obviously, I didn’t do it for 72 holes.”
He has one more tournament to give it a try, in an 18-man field at the Chevron World Challenge the first week of the December that features 13 of the top 20 in the world.
When he starts his 2011 season at Torrey Pines, perhaps then Woods will have settled into his life adjustments, too.
That’s the wild card.
That’s what is different about this swing change.
“I would never doubt anything that Tiger Woods could do because he’s the best player I’ve ever seen play,” Stewart Cink said at Disney. “So it’s dangerous territory when you start saying, ‘No, I don’t think he’ll ever be the same.’ So I just can’t say that.”
Cink, like so many others, pointed to that singles match at Celtic Manor as an indication Woods is getting closer, that he can be the same dominant force he has been his entire career.
“But he’s been through so much — mentally, off the course — that it does tend to sort of weigh into your performance,” Cink said. “And the mental edge is such a big part of his dominance.”
This year — on and off the course — raises more questions than ever about his future. Every great sportsman goes through slumps, no matter how dominant he has been. Woods is no different.