It was Steve Williams, Tiger Woods’ then-caddie, who given his unaccustomed early Sunday tee-time was already at LAX with plenty of time on his hands as he awaited his flight back to New Zealand.
“Where’d we finish?” he asked.
Tied for 44th, I told him.
“That’s just depressing,” he said after a long pause.
Williams, like many, thought 2011 would be the year golf’s fallen champion would bounce back from the nightmare of the scandal that had derailed not just his career but also his life.
And what better place to launch a comeback than at Torrey Pines, where Woods had won seven times as professional — most famously, the 2008 US Open — and never finished outside the top 10?
The four previous times he’d started his season in San Diego, Woods had finished the tournament by holding the trophy aloft, but in 2011, his favorite boyhood course would prove far from a happy hunting ground.
Woods opened with a 69, got it to 7 under after four straight Friday front-nine birdies, but then inexplicably lost his way.
His short game was, at best, erratic — the bunker play was particularly bad — he struggled to hit the green, much less knock it close, with wedges, and perhaps more troubling, his course management — usually a strong point — was woeful.
Williams guessed that Woods short-sided himself more often that week than he would in an entire year.
His confidence shot, Woods went 5 over par over the weekend, prompting rookie Brendan Steele, who watched the 14-time major champion shoot a final-round 75, to opine that Woods had mailed it in.
Steele later apologized, explaining that he meant that Woods knew he couldn’t win and obviously was taking the opportunity to work on the intricacies of the new swing taught to him by Sean Foley.
Later in the year, Woods acknowledged that he didn’t know enough about Foley’s swing at the time to fix it on the run. A year later, though, he feels he’s where Williams thought he’d be last January.
Like many of golf’s big names, he opens his 2012 campaign this week in Abu Dhabi because the lure of $1.5 million in appearance money — significantly, half of the fee he commanded during the halcyon years — proved stronger than the good vibes of the Southern California coast.
He’ll be paired in the opening two rounds with world No. 1 Luke Donald, and the young man many savants believe will dominate the sport in the way Woods has, Rory McIlroy.
Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who’s won this event in three of the past four years, also are collecting petrodollars in what is a very deep field.
Whether we’ll learn much about Woods in 2012 in Abu Dhabi, on a course he’s never seen, is debatable. But if he gets himself into contention, his play under the pressure will be telling.
Understandably, he’s feeling good after a sterling campaign last November in Australia — he finished third at the Australian Open and delivered the winning point in the Presidents Cup victory — and the victory at Chevron in December, where he made birdie on the final two holes to beat Zach Johnson.
But Sunday at Chevron also revealed the Achilles’ heel in Woods’ game. In truth, he shouldn’t have needed those late birdies to hold off Johnson. Just as he had a year before, when he capitulated to Graeme McDowell, Woods fell back with the lead.
“Couple times out there I hit a couple loose shots, and that’s because … my backswing wasn’t where I need to have it, and I know it,” he said. “Under the gun I kind of got back into an old pattern, so obviously I need more reps (to) create a new pattern.”
He and Foley have spent the offseason, such that it is, working on just that: eliminating the instinct, ingrained in Woods for six years under Hank Haney, to fan open the club in the backswing.
It is, in many ways, the last hurdle for Woods to overcome.
“It is all about building the Myelin up in the brain,” Foley told me this week. These swing patterns neurologically never go away, it is just that one becomes more dominant.
“Because of the injuries last year, we were nowhere near to the amount of reps we would (have) liked.
“However, that is exciting because the overall improvement in his ball-striking leaves me very optimistic looking forward to the next five years of repeating, simplyfing and owning his patterns.”
There are no guarantees, and let’s not forget that Foley was expecting big things of his man at this time last year, too.
“His understanding is 10 times better now,” he said. “But it will always be a work in progress.
“Not dissimilar to life, eh?”