There have been many rumours of a parting of the ways in the life of Tiger Woods of late, but as he teed off in the second round of the Players Championship here yesterday the gossip featured the world No 1 splitting with his long-time coach.
Woods has been working with Hank Haney since 2004 and in this time has won six of his 14 majors. It has hardly been a fruitless partnership, so why the whispers? Just because he missed his sixth cut in 14 years as a professional last week? That would seem rather harsh, given that before this week he had played six competitive rounds in more than five months and that four of them happened to be classed as "heroic" in earning him fourth place at last month's Masters.
But where there's Woods there's talk, and in this regard the player himself did nothing to dismiss the speculation. In fact, after signing for a first-round 70 – which incidentally equalled his best opening round in almost a decade and a half of playing in golf's richest event – Woods convinced many journalists that a sacking was imminent.
When asked what he was doing differently here, Woods replied: "I feel I can draw the ball now. At Augusta, I couldn't draw the ball at all. I was just kind of scrapping it with kind of a cut, and trying to get it around. When I'm swinging well, I'm manoeuvring that ball from right to left and it feels good."
"So you figured out this for yourself?" came the follow-up question. "Yeah, yeah," replied Woods.
The implication was that Woods had something to fix and did not go to Haney to do the fixing. So two was inevitably added to two – particularly when it was realised that Haney is not in Jacksonville this week – to make "shown the door". This isn't the first time Haney has apparently been hours from a painful call, though it could be the worst time.
Johnny Miller, the former major winner and NBC analyst, had whipped up this storm with his comments on Wednesday. "It might be a little harsh, but I really believe he needs to, every night, watch the US Open in the year 2000 at Pebble [Beach] and just copy that swing and forget the Haney stuff," Miller said. "He either needs a new, fresh, teacher or just to go back to what is natural to his game. What he is working on now, I believe, is ... no disrespect for Hank Haney, but it is not working."
For his part, Haney seems exasperated by the constant rumour-mongering. He has revealed that he has recently received his quarterly cheque – "You don't pay someone for the next quarter and then fire them the next day, do you?" he said to Golf Week – as well as pointing out that he has rarely accompanied Woods on the tour circuit.
"His clubs are the same, his coach is the same, his caddie is the same, his putter is the same. What's changed?" Haney said. "I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses. I think it's obvious that he has a lot of things going on in his life. I'm sure that if people will give him a little bit of a chance that he'll [be] back to playing golf the way he knows he can."
For the moment, however, the lapses of concentration look set to continue, manifesting notably in erratic driving. His first 10 holes made a bizarre set of numbers: four birdies, three pars, two bogeys and a double-bogey. It meant he was level for the day, two-under for the event and 10 behind the pace-setter at that stage, Ryan Moore.
For Britain, Lee Westwood was doing best out of the morning starters yesterday, getting down to nine under after eight holes.