There were 52 players in their 20s on the golf course with Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines last week, and they all had easier swings than he did. The Natural didn’t look so natural anymore, compared to all those loose, sweet-swinging kids. He looked awkward. He looked confused. He looked like the game has gotten hard for him, and it’s not going to get easier any time soon.

Remember when Woods was young, back when he was a skinny college guy who barely filled out his shirt? He was all elasticity, so limber and flexible that watching him play golf was like watching a boy shoot rubber bands. He hadn’t yet bulked up in his shoulders, and he didn’t worry much about planes or arcs. All he cared about was torque. He just coiled, and then uncoiled, and blam! That kid was the truth.

Maybe Woods needs to quit overcomplicating things. Maybe he should pick up a stick and swing it at a stone, like that 26-year-old Jhonattan Vegas, who learned the game by swiping at rocks with a broom handle, and who in the last two weeks won the Bob Hope Classic, and finished tied for third behind Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson at the Farmers Insurance Open. Vegas has dazzled the galleries with “the perfect balance and timing” of his swing, as the TV analysts raved, and he didn’t acquire it by obsessively studying digital frames of himself on the practice range, as Woods does.

Woods, meantime, played as poorly as he ever has — to the point that you have to wonder what he’s doing to himself by monkeying so much with his mechanics. After a winless 2010 amid a divorce, Woods announced he was ready to contend again thanks to an offseason of work under the tutelage of coach Sean Foley. But in fact, Woods looked like he had regressed. His weekend rounds of 74-75 to finish in a tie for 44th place were a competitive disaster on a course where he has won seven times and never been out of the top 10. He sprayed his drives, his iron shots wandered, he double dipped in bunkers, and three-putted.

There were several ominous numbers that suggest this won’t be the fast comeback he hoped for. He had never finished out of the top 10 in a stroke-play event to start a season. Ever. In the first three rounds at Torrey Pines, he hit just 16 of 42 fairways. He finished at just 1 under par for four rounds — on a course where he used to score 16 under or better. That’s how far off his old form he really is.

“I have some work to do,” Woods said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

But we thought Woods had been working. He spent months beating balls with Foley, videotaping his arcs and planes and release points. Before he teed off at Torrey Pines, he sounded optimistic.

“We’re excited about where my game has progressed over the offseason,” he said. Woods declared he had put “in the work. It takes thousands of balls, and I was able to do that.” As a result, he had recovered “my old keys and feels.”

Once the tournament started, however, it was a different story. After an encouraging opening round of 69, he steadily deteriorated. He bogeyed 12 of his last 44 holes, and by the end, he admitted, “I didn’t swing the club very well at all, didn’t feel comfortable.”

This is the third major swing renovation that Woods has put himself through in 12 years. Some of the changes have been voluntary, and others may have been forced by a chronically ailing left knee.

In 1999, he began working with Butch Harmon, and won seven of 11 major championships through 2002. Then he switched to coach Hank Haney, and reworked his motion again. After struggling through a transition, he won 6 of 14 majors between 2005 and 2008.

He began working with Foley late last season as part of a wholesale personal and professional reorganization, after finalizing his difficult divorce and firing Haney by text message following a second-to-last-place finish at the Bridgestone Invitational. Foley is enjoying a vogue on the PGA Tour. He’s apparently a highly analytical sort who deconstructs biomechanics digitally, taking what Justin Rose once described as a “scientific” approach.

According to golf writer Robert Lusetich, the author of “Unplayable,” a chronicle of Woods’s 2009 struggles, one of Foley’s techniques with Woods was to have him hit balls for two hours in his bare feet. It was Foley’s way of deprogramming Woods, trying to correct what he felt were some bad swing habits.

Foley told Lusetich that he wanted to cure Woods of some excessive movement, and give him a steeper swing as opposed to the flatter one we saw the last few years under Haney. “We’re going to find his Tiger Woods swing again,” Foley told Lusetich. Initially, the fresh start seemed to help him. “It’s exciting to hit the ball flush like this again,” Woods said this fall.

But then came Torrey Pines, where he was so confused that he mis-hit 100-yard wedges. Woods insists that it was all part of a “process” to transfer the swing changes to competition, and that he is committed to Foley. His hope is that the results will come in time for the Masters. We will simply have to wait to judge whether he’s rationalizing, or whether the latest experiment is a failure.

The trouble is, while Woods is rebuilding, all those kids in their 20s are gaining on him, in experience and confidence. When Woods does recover his championship form — and surely he will — he will have to deal with a field that has gotten much younger and deeper since he won his last Grand Slam title in 2008. Last year, players in their 20s claimed 13 PGA Tour titles. It was a striking fact that in the PGA Championship five of the top six players entering the final round were Nick Watney (29), Dustin Johnson (26), Rory McIlroy (21), Jason Day (23), and winner Martin Kaymer (26). And now along comes Vegas, too.

It will be interesting to see if Woods, in his work with Foley, can really recover the swing of his own youth. Do yourself a favor and pull up some old footage of Woods, back when he was a collegiate player and U.S. Amateur champion. It’s a joy to watch. That kid, all elbows and knees, thwacked at the ball with such unconscious, unthinking pleasure. Now pull up modern footage, and you’ll be struck by the difference, how much stiffer he seems, how much he’s fighting his own body.

At this point, Woods’s swing looks over-taught, and over-thought. Through the years, Woods has gotten steadily more mechanical, as well as visibly stronger and more muscular. Woods’s perfectionism has been his greatest strength, but you have to wonder if all that seeking of improvement, his constant preoccupation with the technical, always serves him so well. Maybe the greatest player in the world overperfected his swing. It would be nice to see a more natural Woods.