By TIM DAHLBERG
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 4:22 PM
-- Listen to Tiger Woods, and it's simple. His swing is a work in progress, he's working hard at it, and it won't be long before he leaves golf tournaments with more than just some gas money for his private jet.
Watch Woods play and you wonder what fantasy world he's living in.
He used to hit shots that would leave his fellow pros awe-struck. Now he hits shots no self-respecting professional golfer would ever admit to.
He once won tournaments simply by showing up on the first tee. Now Woods seems relieved just to get off the first tee without embarrassing himself.
Things have gotten so bad that Thomas Bjorn had to give him a pep talk on the final green the other day after another Woods meltdown ended with him being unceremoniously bounced from the Match Play Championship in Arizona before he even had a chance to be caught spitting on the greens.
Woods was so upset afterward he stumbled over the few words he had to say before heading home, probably a good thing because there were plenty of young players waiting who surely would have trounced him had he somehow made it past the first round. Just imagine how the former greatest player in the world might have felt if 17-year-old Matteo Manassero of Italy - who made it to the third round - had sent him packing.
While we're in the imagination mode, who would have imagined the great Tiger Woods being reduced to the would ofs and could ofs that weekend golfers always use to describe what might have been?
"Two easy up-and-downs, a putt I should make at 17, a ball I should put in play on 19," Woods said. "It would have been a different story."
Unfortunately for Woods the story is an increasingly familiar one.
He can still hit the kind of shots he used to hit, but they come less frequently and seem to surprise even Woods when they do. The bad ones, though, are simply awful, like the 3-wood off the tee on the first extra hole that flew straight into the desert and cost Woods his match against Bjorn.
His former swing coach couldn't resist lobbing what was arguably a cheap shot at Woods after that one.
"For all the talk of Tiger's poor driving the last six years I have never seen him drive it out of play with a match or tournament on the line," Hank Haney tweeted.
The subject of what is wrong with Woods, of course, has been a popular one since he crashed his Escalade outside the home he shared with his former wife 15 months ago. His personal life, his golf swing, his putting and even his spitting have been analyzed by everyone from Charles Barkely to Dr. Drew.
On a Golf Channel roundtable the other night, NBC analyst Johnny Miller managed in just one breath to compare Woods to both Mike Tyson and Humpty Dumpty.
"It's a little bit like a Mike Tyson story to be honest with you - sort of invincible, scared everybody, performed quickly under pressure - until Buster Douglas came along," Miller said. "Tiger sort of hit that and it's life. And his life crumbled. It's like Humpty Dumpty, on a high wall way above the other players. He had a great fall and there are pieces all over the place. He's trying to put them together. It's a tough thing."
It seems to be getting tougher with each tournament Woods plays. Give Woods a hall pass for last year when he had to deal with both a turbulent personal life and a faltering swing, but he's showing no sign after three outings this year that he might be turning things around.
And, suddenly, the Masters looms just weeks away.
I wrote last year that the worst thing that could happen to Woods wasn't that fans would turn away from him because of his infidelity scandal or that he might not do what everyone once thought was inevitable - break the record of 18 major championships won by Jack Nicklaus.
No, the worst thing that could happen to Woods was that he would simply become mediocre. And that seems to be exactly what is happening.
He's not all that interesting to watch anymore, unless you're the type who likes hearing a loud swear word or enjoys watching someone spit on the green as Woods did in Dubai. He no longer hits the ball past everyone, and there is a gaggle of talented kids who not only aren't afraid of Woods, but can't wait to take him on.
I don't doubt Woods will win again. He's got so much talent it could happen just by accident.
But I don't see him winning the way he used to win, and I don't think there's any way he wins five more majors to break the record held by Nicklaus.
No, the greatest player of his era will have to adjust to a new normalcy.
For Woods, that may be even tougher than figuring out his new swing.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org