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Tiger Woods needs to tinker with his mental game

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Tiger Woods isn’t done. His career is far from over. Sunday’s final-round collapse at Pebble Beach wasn’t pretty, but it also wasn’t another nail in the coffin of his golf game, which has been declared dead more times than Generalissimo Francisco Franco in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

But Tiger Woods as we knew him – the Woods who was at his best on Sunday afternoons, the Woods who won all his majors while entering the final round either leading or being tied for the lead – that Woods may be gone.

That Woods made planning a weekend easy for those who loved to watch his icy stare and icier game. Those fans would check the third-round leaderboard, see Woods at the top and try to finish their errands by about 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Sunday, he didn’t enter the final round in the lead, but he was only four shots off after a third-round 67. A victory didn’t seem impossible, and indeed, he was one shot out of the lead on the sixth hole. And then he came unglued, carding five bogeys on his way to a 75, finishing tied for 15th. His playing partner and sometime nemesis Phil Mickelson beat him by 11 shots in the final round.

“I love playing with him, and he brings out some of my best golf,” Mickelson said. “I hope that he continues to play better, and better, and I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more in the final rounds.”

Those words had to hurt Woods more than the final score. There was a time when Mickelson folded like a road map – remember road maps? – when paired with Woods. There was a time when Mickelson’s putts would have been all over the greens, not Woods’s. Sunday, however, Mickelson – whose putter has often been his nemesis – was like Ty Webb in “Caddyshack”; everything was going in. And Woods’s putts? Well, they weren’t.

“I didn’t hit it as bad as the score indicated, but I putted awful,” Woods said. “As good as I felt on the greens [Saturday, when he shot 67], I felt bad today. Anything I tried to do wasn’t working. Consequently, I made a ton of mistakes on the green.”

A rivalry that used to be fairly one-sided is now dead even: Woods and Mickelson are 13-13-4 when playing head-to-head. Mickelson has won the last five times they’ve been paired. That’s great news for the Mickelites, who’ve long chafed at the adulation thrown Woods’s way while Lefty was often overlooked.

But Woods has bigger worries than Mickelson. He has not won a PGA tournament in 882 days. During that time his marriage has fallen apart due to his serial cheating, he’s gone to rehab for sex addiction, his wife divorced him, he’s gone through a couple of swing coaches and several surgeries and non-sex addiction rehabs. It’s been a rough time, even though much of that was self-inflicted.

Now, however, he seems fairly healthy. He seems to be settled into a routine with his children, and with his coaches, and with his swing. And yet … he’s not quite there. He can’t finish. He was close in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, leading after three rounds but faltering in the final round (sound familiar?) to finish tied for third behind to Robert Rock and Rory McIlroy.

There are some real similarities between the two events: Woods made two bogeys in the first three rounds in Abu Dhabi; he made three in the final round. He made five bogeys in the first three rounds in Pebble Beach; he made five on Sunday. Also Sunday, Tiger missed six putts within 10 feet; Mickelson, with his sometimes erratic putter, was 14-of-14. If you think that didn’t get into Woods’s head, think again.

And that’s the ultimate problem – Woods’s head. Maybe it’s the long layoff. Maybe it’s all the changes in his life. Or maybe it’s just 882 days without hoisting a trophy. Whatever it is, this is not the old Tiger Woods.

If you’re his family, that’s good news. If you’re his caddy, his sponsors, or him, that’s not good news. What’s happened to his mojo? Did he really need to bed a bevy of beauties in order to win golf tournaments? It seems unlikely.

He’s spent much of his post-recovery time tinkering with his swing, worrying about his mechanics. But he’s one of – if not the – greatest golfers of all time. Perhaps he should let the swing come naturally and tinker with his mental mechanics instead. He needs to find his confidence, his swagger, that frosty exterior that used to intimidate his fellow golfers and enrage their fans.

Either that, or he needs to find a whole new way to win tournaments, one that doesn’t require grabbing the lead after three rounds then holding off all challengers with chilly perfection. Because it’s clear that right now, Woods can’t close. Until – unless – he finds a way to return to his usual nasty self on Sundays, Woods will be just another player, hovering among the top 10 and collecting a decent check before moving on to the next stop. How long can Woods stand to be that guy?

© The Washington Post Company