Tiger Woods, his divorce finally behind him, will compete in his first tournament in six years as a single man at this week's Barclays Classic in Paramus, New Jersey, amid much speculation over his playing form. The scandal-hit American world No 1 has been a shadow of his former dominant self since his double life was exposed at the end of last year following multiple revelations of marital infidelity.
Woods, who has yet to win in nine starts this season, produced the worst four-round performance of his PGA Tour career at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational earlier this month and has struggled with his mental focus. It could be, however, that the finality of his divorce from his Swedish wife, Elin, will help him play competitive golf more freely with his mind now less prone to wander, quite literally, off course.
The dissolution of their marriage took place in Florida on Monday and Woods can now concentrate on his golf. Time is not on his side, though, as his 2010 campaign draws to a close. The Barclays Classic, which starts tomorrow, is the first of four lucrative FedEx Cup play-off events and Woods needs to perform well this week if he is to advance further. The 14-time major winner lies 112th in the standings and only the top 100 players on Sunday will qualify for the second play-off event, the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Massachusetts, in September.
Woods, by his own admission, has struggled to regain consistent form since taking a self-imposed five-month break after his private life spectacularly unravelled in late November and December. He made an encouraging return when he tied for fourth place at the US Masters in April and again at the US Open in June, but the rest of his year has been forgetful. Among the low points were a missed cut at the Quail Hollow Championship, a withdrawal from the Players Championship due to a neck injury and a tie for 78th at Firestone in a field of 80 at this month's Bridgestone Invitational.
His poor form now means that if he is to represent the United States in their defence of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales against Europe in October he will have to do so as a wildcard if he is selected by Corey Pavin, the captain. Eight days ago, Woods tied for 28th at the US PGA Championship, the year's final major, where he began working unofficially with a new swing coach in the Canadian Sean Foley.
Asked whether he might recruit Foley full-time, Woods replied: "I still want to pick his brain a little bit more, I don't really have all of his whole concept yet. "But I like some of the things he had to say about my golf swing and where I needed to go." Comfortably the greatest player of his generation, Woods has not won anywhere in the world since the Australian Masters last November and has lost the aura of invincibility he once enjoyed.
"I don't know about entering a new era but there is a slightly different feel," Paul Casey, the world No 9, told reporters before the PGA Championship. "The feeling in the locker room is slightly different. The way he played [at Firestone], guys feel this tournament is wide open, and that's not a feeling a lot of guys have had before." Woods has long targeted the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, his childhood idol and, with just four opportunities each year, he certainly needs to get his game back on track if he is to close the gap.
Earlier this month, he conceded for the first time he had been unable to practice as much as normal. With his divorce impending and golf frequently keeping him on the road, he tried to see his two young children whenever possible. "Life has changed," Woods said. "I haven't practised as much as I used to, nor should I. My kids are more important." Whether his practice time will increase now that his six-year marriage is over remains to be seen, and only time will tell if this is his turning point.