There are some developing stories to keep in mind as Tiger Woods returns from his latest injury layoff in The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
The first storyline is that the world really is starting to pass him by. Now eighth in the world golf rankings, Woods is in the territory where it will take a sustained run of good play to get back to No. 1.
Woods last won on the PGA Tour in September 2009. Another victory in Australia two months later remains his most recent win on any circuit. Even allowing for some inevitable adjustment — most of it mental — for his return 13 months ago from personal scandal and some physical issues that have also crept up, the time is nigh for Woods to show he's back in form.
Which brings us to the second storyline.
The Players: Major Minor
- It has the biggest official first-prize in golf: $1.71 million
- Five-year exemption for winning is only benefit in line with winning a major
- Winner gets a three-year exemption into all majors
- Unlike the majors, the European Tour does not sanction the tournament
- The tournament moved from March to May 2007 to fill a lull in PGA Tour schedule between Masters and U.S. Open
Woods' work with Canadian coach Sean Foley extends back eight months to last August. Either the work they're doing should be paying dividends soon or one has to start to wonder whether the latest swing tweaks are the problem rather than the solution.
At his customary Tuesday meeting with the media, Woods downplayed any concern or suggestion that he's getting impatient, pointing to a similar stretch he endured working under former swing coach Butch Harmon more than a decade ago.
Hate to be cynical, but what else was he supposed to say?
To be fair, Woods perhaps doesn't get credit for some of his good play since his world changed so drastically in late November 2009. Both Masters tournaments he's played since then ended in T4 showings, and were much closer to seeing him pulling on a fifth green jacket than many people focused on the negative like to admit.
In the three other majors since the scandal, he has another T4 as well as a T23 and T28. Actually, most of the poor play that seems to be the hallmark of the past 18 months has come in lower-tier events.
'Unofficial fifth major'
The Players continues to be called the unofficial fifth major championship. More accurately, it's the next biggest tournament for American players after the majors.
Any talk of it ever becoming a major is mostly just media speculation and the warped view that it gets because it's the biggest event that is conducted by the PGA Tour (contrary to false perception, the PGA Tour does not run the four major championships).
Glancing at the wider field this week, a victory this week by another bright, young player will continue the trend that has been largely the norm since Woods' star began to fizzle. Interestingly, the Players has rarely been the venue for a coming-out party.
Tim Clark winning it last year at the age of 34 doesn't fit that description. But the South African's victory was a sign that he had ascended to the level reserved for the Top 20 to 25 players in the game, regardless of what the world rankings say at any one space in time.
But winning the Players doesn't mean the champion will go on to break into the majors club. All you need to do is look at the two previous winners before Clark. Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia are currently in slumps you would have thought were unimaginable at the time of their wins. In fact, Clark, Stenson and Garcia remain winless on the PGA Tour since their Sawgrass victories.
Stretching back to 2002, Craig Perks won by chipping in on 18 as Calgary's Stephen Ames warmed up on the practice green preparing for a possible playoff.
Ames eventually won the Players four years later — plus two more PGA Tour events since — but Perks is now out of touring golf and teaching.
Ames is the lone Canadian in action this week.