Sports

Tiger Woods still dominating talk at Torrey Pines

Tiger Woods, No. 56 in the world, comes back after missing cut at Phoenix Open

Reporters and camera crews still camp out for Tiger Woods — the questions are just different.

They've gone from "what's right?" to "what's wrong?"

If it wasn't Woods, no one would box out for turf space for a guy coming off a round of 82 that dropped him to No. 56 in the Official World Golf Ranking, one spot behind Tommy Fleetwood.

This is, at least in mind and body, the same Woods who has spent 683 total weeks at No.1.

What's missing is the old spirit.

The most telling testament of his struggles might be emanating from Las Vegas, where oddsmakers have listed Woods as a 50-to-1 longshot to win this week's Farmers Insurance Open.

That's incredible considering Woods has won seven Farmers Opens at Torrey Pines and, in 2008, the U.S. Open on this course.

Golf Channel analysts were ready to bring Woods down after he opened with a two-over 73 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, never fathoming his next-day 11-over.

That's when the Gong Show really started.

The latest round of grilling came after Wednesday's fog-shortened pro-am at Torrey Pines. Woods stuck to his formulaic script of suggesting just how close his new swing changes are to taking hold.

"I'm caught right between [swing] patterns," Woods said. "I'm caught dead right in between."

The troubleshooters in the press came close to prying from Woods the possibility that, at age 39, he might not be as devoted.

Proof: Monday, instead of obsessing over his mid-life golf crisis, Woods flew to Colorado to watch girlfriend Lindsey Vonn finish third in super-giant slalom at the World Ski Championships.

Woods is also going downhill fast, but that's bad in golf.

Is it possible the passion has waned?

"I would say I practice less now," he said.

He attributed concessions to injuries and the desire to spend more precious time with his joint-custody children.

That doesn't mean Woods isn't trying. After missing the cut last week, he flew straight home to Florida and spent the weekend, he said, "chipping in my backyard."

Anyone who saw Woods chip last week knows he should have made it a long weekend.

There are, believe it or not, other story lines in advance of the Farmers, a 72-hole, two-course, majestic seaside tour stop north of San Diego.

—This year's event marks return of Dustin Johnson, an eight-time tour winner, who took a six-month leave to deal with personal issues.

Johnson has not played since missing the cut at last July's Canadian Open.

He has denied, in interviews granted to selected media outlets, a published report that he had a cocaine problem. Johnson said his issues were alcohol related.

He recently celebrated the birth of a child with Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

—Who's got next? Several top young stars — Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas — seem poised to lead the next generation into the post-Woods era.

Spieth has climbed to No. 9 in the world rankings. The long-hitting Koepka, who attended Florida State before toiling in golf outposts such as Kazakhstan and Turkey, broke through with his first win last week in Phoenix.

Many think Justin Thomas, the 145-pound dynamo from Kentucky, may be the next man up.

—Lost in the gnashing over Woods is the fact Phil Mickelson isn't knocking many shots stiff. Last week, Woods and Mickelson missed the cut in the same tournament for only the second time. Mickelson and Woods have combined for 10 wins at the Farmers. Woods won two years ago; Mickelson hasn't won here since 2001.

"I know where my game is," Mickelson said. "I don't feel the scores are reflecting it, but we'll see this week."

Most of the oxygen, though, is being sucked up by Tiger Talk.

Woods starts play Thursday morning on the North Course, with his game tilting south.

The golf world, which for so long feared Woods, also knows it needs him. Woods grew the game exponentially and put increased purse money into everyone's pockets.

"I think everyone is curious," Rickie Fowler, paired with Woods on Thursday, said of his playing partner's game.

Fowler then posted this bulletin on the state of Tiger's game: "He's human."

What? It didn't seem that way through the years Woods wore an impenetrable shield on his way to 79 tour wins and 14 major championships.

Tour veteran Pat Perez said he never imagined a Tiger Woods with the yips.

"I thought he would have 25 majors by now and he would be thinking about retirement."

Perez remembers when Woods was the best and "there was nothing you could do about it. He was just there. But it's just — it's just different."

Woods seems the only person not in a panic. He thinks his 82 was an aberration, not an omen.

"I just need reps," he said. "I just need to keep doing it and doing it and doing it and eventually it will start becoming more natural."

Maybe he knows something.

If he doesn't, then the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament Woods has dominated, becomes the latest eyebrow raise.

Tiger at 21 was the start of something big. Nearing 40, this could be the start of something different.

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