Tiger Woods' glory seems to have faded along with his drives

Tiger Woods is 39, nearly seven years removed from last major title, and his next one seems ever further away

There was only so much that Tiger Woods could bear to watch.

As his tee shot drifted farther and farther right, he dropped his head and let his arms fall to his side.

Barely two hours into the latest chapter of a storied but recently troubled career, Woods had sent yet another drive wide of the fairway, setting up yet another bogey on his way to missing the cut at last week's Phoenix Open.

There wasn't much to say afterward.

"Just keep fighting," he said. "Just keep grinding each and every shot."

The former No. 1 player — one of the greatest ever — comes to Torrey Pines this week as a man seeking redemption.

Still reeling from a string of injuries and a tabloid scandal, he is rebuilding the strength in his surgically repaired back while trying to revamp his swing and recapture the dominance he once held over this game. Looming on the horizon — as always — is Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors, which seems less attainable with every year.

"Just seems like he needs more repetitions," said Jordan Spieth, a rising star on the PGA Tour who played alongside Woods in Arizona. "Obviously a little rust for him there."

Woods is 39 now, and seven years have gone by since he limped to a nearly mythic victory at Torrey Pines, overcoming a badly injured knee and a feisty Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff. This week's tournament, the Farmers Insurance Open, is not a major.

Though he has 14 tour victories since then, none of them majors, he hasn't really seemed the same.

Knee surgery kept him off the course for a while and then came scandal, as the revelation of numerous extramarital affairs led to divorce and reported treatment for sex addiction. That pretty much wiped out his 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Five victories vaulted him to No. 1 in 2013, but a chronically sore back brought last season to a sudden halt. Woods left the Tour in spring to undergo a microdiscectomy — a spinal surgery in which a small piece of bone is removed to allow the nerve to heal. He attempted a brief return before retreating to heal and practice.

Much of the off-season was spent looking at videotape from his entire career back to juniors. In late August, he split from swing coach Sean Foley and hired Chris Como to help recapture his glory years.

"I'm so much more shallow now than I used to be," Woods said of his reconstructed swing. "It's hard sometimes."

Still, his game seemed to be making progress at the Hero World Challenge, the charity tournament he hosts each December.

"Looked like the club was going through a lot freer," veteran Steve Stricker said. "Looked like it was on a better path."

And things were looking up as Woods headed into his season debut last week.

The crowds in Phoenix — always large and boisterous, often fueled by plentiful amounts of alcohol — cheered as he stepped onto the first tee in a bright magenta shirt and black pants for Thursday's first round.

Homes border the first few holes at TPC Scottsdale and residents hung "Welcome back" signs from patio railings and balconies.

"It was fantastic," Woods said.

But the enthusiasm shifted as Woods launched one tee shot after another into the dirt and cactus outside the fairway. A wayward drive on No. 9 elicited that slumping body language.

Even worse, his short chips skidded and wobbled like the stuff of weekend hackers.

Television commentators described him as having the "yips." Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee called it "the worst I have ever seen a tour pro around the greens."

By mid-afternoon, exuberant cheers from the gallery had morphed into something of a more sympathetic nature.

His old brilliance showed in brief glimmers. On No. 13, Woods hit a drive down the middle, bounced an approach shot onto the green and sunk an eagle putt. A subsequent birdie pulled him back to two over for the day.

"Look how far I'm hitting it," he said, adding: "I just need tournament rounds like this where I can fight, fight through it, turn it around, grind through it and make adjustments on the fly."

But his second round quickly disintegrated into a string of bogeys and double-bogeys on the first nine holes. Woods was on the way to his worst round as a pro, needing 82 shots to get through Friday.

That led to a pair of unlucky 13s — he finished 13 over par and missed the cut for only the 13th time in his career.

"We all have days like this," he said. "Unfortunately, mine was in a public forum, in a public setting."

By the start of this week, Woods had slipped to 56th in the world rankings, his lowest position in more than three years.

On more than one occasion, he has said that girlfriend Lindsey Vonn — who has come back from multiple knee surgeries to resume winning on the World Cup ski circuit — has taught him about resilience. Asked what he would do between Phoenix and Torrey Pines, he offered a predictable response.

"Practice each and every day," he said. "Just work on it."

If nothing else, he will be returning to a pleasantly familiar setting.

Starting with a victory at the 1991 Junior World Championships, Woods has won nine times at the course by the sea. His latest victory in 2013 gave him a seventh Farmers Insurance Open title.

Not that he sounds entirely confident this time around.

Patience was a recurring theme for him in Phoenix. He talked about making comebacks before, most recently winning player-of-the-year honors in 2013.

"You've got to keep things in perspective," he said, quickly adding, "Sometimes it's difficult to do that."

There was no mention of the four majors needed to tie Nicklaus' record. In this latest chapter of the Tiger Woods saga, that would be looking much too far ahead.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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