In 2001, the tournament known as golf’s unofficial “fifth major” was held the week before the Masters — and Woods won both events as he became the only modern-day player to hold all four major crowns at the same time, albeit not in a calendar year.
This week, at the age of 36 and struggling to rediscover his best form, the American will again line up at TPC Sawgrass — but without the help of the man who helped him become the dominant force he was: coach Butch Harmon.
Already he has had to fend off questions about his painfully long process of swing changes, and a disappointing showing at Augusta last month and then again at Quail Hollow last week, where he missed the halfway cut.
Hopes had been raised by his pre-Masters victory at Bay Hill, his first on the PGA Tour in more than two years, but since then his work with current coach Sean Foley has been questioned by former players such as Nick Faldo and Brandel Chamblee, both now TV pundits.
Chamblee offered: “He needs to fire Sean, call Butch. He’s literally lost the art of the game, and I think Butch could help him.”
Faldo, who unlike Chamblee can call himself a major champion — six times over — is troubled by Woods’ apparent lack of confidence.
“He just doesn’t have the self-belief, the self-confidence that he obviously had, the Tiger of old — simple as that,” the Englishman said.
Woods, for his part, insists that his work in progress is similar to previous frustrating periods rebuilding his swing with Harmon and then Hank Haney — and he rebounded from those in a stellar career featuring 14 major titles and more than 80 professional victories.
“I went for probably almost two years without doing much with Butch before it kicked in, and about a year and a half with Hank,” he told reporters ahead of Thursday’s opening round.
“With Sean it’s been almost two years. But I’ve been hurt for a majority of that, so I haven’t been able to put in the time. In essence, it takes time.
“The fruits have been pretty good on the back side of it, and I think so far I’ve shown some nice consistency, and I’m still working. I just haven’t had the time because obviously the injuries I’ve had.”
Woods did admit that he might be thinking too much about his game, rather than just playing.
“Certainly it is (like that) when you’re making changes,” he said. “I’ve done this before. I’ve been through this. I went through those periods where I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. I had some pretty good runs after that, and this is no different.
“It takes a little bit of time, and I keep building, and things eventually come around to where they feel natural and efficient. I think that’s probably the most important word, is that you get out there and you feel efficient in what you’re doing.”
Woods’ recent performances have highlighted another part of his game that needs work: his putting — having needed 33 in the second round at Quail Hollow, and also struggling in finishing 40th at Augusta.
“Absolutely. I’m not quite 100% comfortable with it. I’ve had to make some tweaks and some little bit of changes,” he said.
“Augusta was nice to have happen, actually, in the big scheme of things. Just like it was at Dubai a couple of years ago when I couldn’t cut the golf ball. I felt like I could have won that golf tournament, but not being able to cut it cost me eight or nine shots that week.
“Augusta was one of those things where it was just pretty glaring, some of the things I needed to work on. So get back to work and try and get ready for this week.”
Woods will be in a high-profile grouping on Thursday and Friday as he lines up alongside FedEx Cup series leader Hunter Mahan and another “Golf Boy” in Rickie Fowler, who won his first PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow last weekend.
Rory McIlroy, who returned to world No. 1 by reaching the playoff on Sunday, will partner Steve Stricker and another veteran American, Phil Mickelson — who was inducted into golf’s Hall of Fame on Monday and was champion at Ponte Vedra Beach in 2007.
Luke Donald, who the lost the top ranking after skipping Quail Hollow, will play alongside fellow former No. 1 Lee Westwood and 2011 FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas in the $9.5 million Florida tournament.