Tiger's foes no longer fear his mystique - NBC Sports

Tiger's foes no longer fear his mystique
At 35, Woods will face his uphill battle against even more young guns
AFP - Getty Images
Tiger Woods, right,ÿand Graeme McDowell shake hands after McDowell forced a sudden death playoff with Woods and won on the first playoff hole at the Chevron World Challenge on Dec. 5, 2010.
January 26, 2011, 6:01 pm

Tiger Woods can't start a new year without being reminded of the last one.

And the last one wasn't very good.

Some of his peers couldn't help but chuckle when the pro-am tee times for the Farmers Insurance Open were posted in the locker room. For more than a decade, Woods had the first available tee time, a perk for being the best player on the PGA Tour, or not far from it. Those pro-am times are determined by the previous year's money list.

Woods was No. 68 on the money list.

He tees off at 11 a.m., which is about the time he used to finish.

"I can't imagine he'll be too thrilled with that," Pat Perez said.

And then there's the world ranking.

What's more noteworthy about the world ranking, however, is it's the first time Woods has been ranked behind someone younger than him. He turned 35 over the holidays.

Woods has known this day was coming, even when his game appeared untouchable. In time, there would be a player - or players, in this case - younger than him and not as intimidated.

Sure, there was a brief challenge from Sergio Garcia. Adam Scott reached as high as No. 3, and Paul Casey did the same a year later.

Now, the youth brigade is coming in bunches.

Ahead of him in the ranking is Kaymer, the 26-year-old German who won the PGA Championship last year to become the youngest major champion since Woods. Kaymer also won the European Tour money title, and started the year with an eight-shot victory over what will be one of the strongest fields the European Tour will see all year.

"He's probably the most formidable player in the world when he is leading," Padraig Harrington said.

"He used to appear invincible," McDowell said that day. "Of course, he's made himself appear more human in the last 12 months. But there's something a bit special about his golf game, and I fully expect that mystique to return."

McDowell is 31, and right behind Woods in the world ranking at No. 4.

Woods also has to contend with younger players like Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and perhaps even Luke Donald from Europe, not to mention Dustin Johnson and Anthony Kim from the American side.

So many talented, young players will not make Woods' task any easier. The bigger question is whether Woods is equipped for the fight.

Slideshow
Image: Tiger Woods, Elin Nordegren

Images of Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren prior to sex scandal that led to their divorce.

But just like last year, no one is quite sure what to expect.

His new swing coach, Sean Foley, said he spent about four hours a week with Woods on the practice range at Isleworth the last few months, and he liked what he saw. He said Woods no longer has to think as much about what he's doing. The swing repeats more easily. What he feels matches up with the mechanics.

How will that translate with a scorecard in hand?

"If you want to anticipate what happens in the future, look to the past," Foley suggested. "What people lose touch of, because we're such a bandwagon society, is that for a decade there, it might have been one of the greatest 10-year runs in the history of athletics. Obviously, he struggled last year. But I look forward to watching him compete."

When Kaymer won in Abu Dhabi, it was his ninth win in his 100th start on the European Tour. That still doesn't compare with Woods, who won 28 times - including six majors - in his first 100 starts on the much stronger PGA Tour.

Woods has overcome swing changes in 1998 and 2004. He has overcome knee surgeries, one at the end of 2002, two during 2008. Even so, he has never been humbled like he was last year, when his private failures became so public, and so embarrassing.

His performance was such that no one fears him.

Ian Poulter had some fun with Woods on Twitter early Tuesday, after seeing that Woods had offered to answer questions from his tweets before leaving Florida for San Diego.

Poulter kept egging on Woods to get involved with Twitter.

"come on tiger when are you going to join the lads for some banter," said one Poulter tweet. That was followed by Poulter's message to Westwood that "im not having it that No3 is writing his own tweets. He doesn't want to play."

Westwood submitted this question to Woods: "is it true you've dyed your hair Ginger,signed a deal with IJP clothing and bought a White Ferrari cos your in awe of poults?"

Woods didn't take the bait. There were no replies.

Really, the only thing No. 3 can do now is try to play like he did when he was No. 1.

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