By Alex Miceli
Once a year, Punxsutawny Phil brings focus on a hamlet northeast of Pittsburgh, where, the legend goes, if the groundhog sees his shadow, winter will last six more weeks.
That’s exactly what happened to Phil on Thursday.
Some 7,000 miles away, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tiger Woods seemed to see his shadow, too. Instead of six more weeks of winter, Woods might not ever see the spring of his game. He stumbled to a 5-over 77 in the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
It was his first birdie-free round since his final round at Doral in 2014, ironically, that was Woods last round before leaving the tour for back surgery.
Only two weeks into his return to professional golf after a 17-month hiatus, the 41-year-old looks every bit of a much older player, no doubt because of several surgeries on his back and left knee.
Although looks can be deceiving, in this case they weren’t.
In three rounds since his return – two last week at the Farmers Insurance Open and Round 1 at Dubai – Woods is 9 over, with five birdies, 12 bogeys and a double bogey.
Was all of this expected?
Woods had talked a good game before his return, taking his time with the comeback and skipping the Safeway Open in October when he decided that his game was not where it needed to be.
When he played in the Hero World Challenge, an exhibition in December, Woods showed glimpses of his former play but finished 15th in the 18-man field.
Now Woods is back in full-field events and spending his time looking up from the bottom, just trying to find the cut line.
Intimidation, fitness, power and speed proved to be the hallmarks of a player who won 79 PGA Tour titles, including 14 major championships. Now none of those attributes is visible as Woods seems unsure, with little fuel in the tank.
Woods reportedly walked gingerly at times in Dubai, which Woods disputed. However, back pain has been prevalent for Woods in recent years, and he talked about it Wednesday in Dubai.
“Whether my swing looks classical, rhythmical or it may look unorthodox, I don't care, Woods said. “As long as I don't feel that nerve pain. Anyone in here who has ever had nerve pain in their back or anywhere in their spine, it's like hitting your funny bone a thousand times a day; it's just not fun. And I would much rather not have to go through that again.”
The Woods of today is a shell of the Woods of yesteryear. The idea that he will come back as good as new seems as unlikely as the fax machine supplanting email.
The best days are behind Woods, and he is smart enough to understand that. Yet, Woods still thinks he can win again, and it seems too early in his return to logically judge whether a victory might be in his future.
To win, Woods first must play his way into contention. After the past two weeks, that seems difficult to foresee.
Still, Woods merits the benefit of the doubt based on his past accomplishments. But if he doesn’t turn his game around soon, the golfing public will have to concede that Woods is done and move on, leaving Woods stuck in the winter of his career.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read.