Tiger Woods has prematurely been forced to turn his attention to the Players Championship and, with respect to all those players who did make the weekend in Charlotte, so has the sporting world. In the midst of the sex scandal, the world No 1 expressed his desire for the focus to fall back on to his game. Well, his wish has come true. But then, so too has a golfing nightmare.
"It's going to be the big, big story, everybody's going to be leaping on it," said Nick Faldo, as he considered Woods heading to the event referred to as "the fifth major" on the back of the worst display of his 14-year career. For the first time since he won his first major, Woods is rated more likely to miss the cut than he is to win the trophy. The Quail Hollow Championship ensured it.
Even this morning the stats of Woods's sixth missed cut as a pro seem stunning. After shrugging off a near five-month absence and claiming a heroic fourth position at The Masters, Woods finished 140th in North Carolina. In more than 300 tournaments in the paid ranks, that's as bad as it's ever been for Woods; as was his two-round total of 153. The 79 on Friday was the second highest score of his career, with only the 81 in the carnage of that Muirfield Saturday in 2002 topping it.
But even more staggering than the numbers was the manner in which they were compiled. Perhaps Peter Kostis, the coach of Paul Casey summed it up best. "We saw Tiger rendered almost meek in that public apology he made in February," he said. "But the golf course would be the place where he could be Tiger again; where he could be strong, where he could be bullet-proof. He's missed cuts before but this is the first time we've seen him looking lost. A shell of what he was."
Woods seemed resigned, emotionless even, taking little care over some of his shots, hitting them on the run. There was some heckling, but nothing so voluble as to throw him into a spiral of lethargy. No, it was surely the complete loss of faith in himself and his swing which caused him to behave like a hacker with his eye only on the clubhouse. "At The Masters, he did an incredible job," said Faldo. "But this one will really bug him, really frustrate him. He will go home and scratch his head why this golf swing is taking so long to get to where he wants it."
Many might think that Faldo and yes, Woods, are expecting way too much for his rhythm to return in six competitive rounds. But when Woods returned from an eight-month absence after a knee reconstruction last year he did not display anything like the same mediocrity as he did in Charlotte, where he remarkably managed to hit only six fairways in 36 holes. The position of his coach, Hank Haney, is bound to come under scrutiny.
"Who knows what this will mean?" said Faldo, who happens to have a front-row seat to one of sport's most fascinating stories in his role as a CBS summariser. "A couple of years ago he did a couple of months on his own and played great after Carnoustie, basically winning every week."
But this is not 2007, this is 2010 and the untainted icon back then is a stranger to the ridiculed adulterer now. It is not only how Tiger sees Tiger, but also how his rivals see Tiger. When he does relocate his radar – which he will – then his next problem will be rediscovering the x-factor. "This man had an incredible aura and he drew on it," explained Faldo. "It's completely different now. The other players are all talking about it. All of a sudden they see him in trouble. He ruined his old life where the media started on him at the clubhouse parking lot and then left him alone when he left it. It's 24/7 spotlight now. He has an awful lot to deal with – his rivals sense that."
They must also sense how the vows he made are holding him back. Not those of the marital variety, but those concerning his temper and behaviour on the course. "He did manage to keep his cool and a tight lip [in Charlotte]," said Faldo. "But I can't imagine he'd be thinking, 'Oh great, at least I've got that going for me'. People are watching his every move and unfortunately he set himself up there. He's put everything on the table, saying 'I'm going to change, I'm going to do all these new things'. So when he can't live up to it – they point the finger."
By trying to be who he is not, is Woods in danger of becoming the flake he was never meant to be? That is just one of the imponderables golf is mulling over as it moves on to Sawgrass. Which Tiger will turn up? And will this one be recognisable? The saga goes on.