With Augusta whispering to Tiger Woods through its dogwoods and azaleas for next week's Masters, he is listening. And even hinting that he's about to return from a self-imposed hiatus. But until proven otherwise, his golf game remains a mess.
More specifically, Woods isn't himself these days, and the primary reason isn't complicated.
It's mental. Period.
Well, most of it.
The man who isn't ranked among the world's top 100 golfers for the first time since 1996 needs a shrink. That is, if he doesn't have one already. Patrick Devine, a sports psychologist for more than three decades who has worked with Major League Baseball and NFL teams, offered his opinion on how Woods could possibly get back on track. It would all start with a highlight reel.
"Instead of having a bunch of great golf swings and a bunch of great golf shots, the highlight reel I put together for Tiger would have a lot of those big smiles we saw across his face when he was doing well," said Devine, who currently is a professor of Industrial-Organizational and Sport Psychology at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. "Right now, he's just too tight, and he's bound up out there. He needs somebody to help him to get back on track, to relax, to get him to swing smoothly and sweetly and to swoosh through the ball rather than ratchet the club down like the Tin Man. He needs to be reminded of what it feels like to play this game and to have fun."
That's opposed to now, when every time you see Woods on a golf course, he's just a few seconds away from cringing with the rest of us after one of his shots. You probably know about his litany of golfing horrors since he was named PGA Tour Player of the Year for an 11th time in 2013. Actually, even then, he was five years removed from the 14th and the last of his major championships in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. During the past two years, Woods has missed cuts, withdrawn from tournaments, scared folks in galleries (and creatures in lakes) with wayward shots and made groundskeepers work harder after chopping up large chunks of grass after one of his attempts at chipping.
According to Devine and common sense, Woods' golfing issues are intertwined with his personal ones. There was Thanksgiving Weekend of 2009, when he watched his public image change forever after the slew of embarrassing revelations leading to his divorce. Three years earlier, Woods had to deal with the death of his father, who also was his trusted coach, best friend and soul mate.
Not only that, Earl was Tiger's shrink.
The older Woods graduated from Kansas State with a psychology degree. He later was a Special Forces officer in the Vietnam War, and from the time Tiger left his mother's womb through much of his march toward greatness, Earl was strengthening Tiger's mind as well as his body.
"You've got to remember that Tiger's dad was a tough guy, hard-nosed, and his philosophy was that you should have a big belief in yourself, and that you should solve our own problems, and that you shouldn't rely on others to carry you," said Devine.
As is the case with other sports, more than a few professional golfers have their own sports psychologist. Woods traditionally hasn't been one of them.
During a media gathering at the 2013 PGA Championship, Woods responded to a question by saying he had a sports psychologist "when I was younger," but he quickly moved to another question.
Not that Devine is surprised by that scenario.
"Tiger is still influenced by his father's teachings about how you should handle your own mental approach," Devine said. "You can see during tournaments that Tiger's way of keeping things to himself carries him down the front nine, but it doesn't carry him down the back nine, does it? He starts to fade. He starts to over-process, and he doesn't let go of stuff. He doesn't release bad shots like he once did, and you know he's tough on himself. We've all seen the blowups. In addition to what he learned from his father, it could be that, when he has confided in others through the years, it has come back to haunt him. Maybe that's why he can't let anybody inside of his head."
So let's go down the check list for why folks say Woods has crashed and burned out of nowhere.
Is he suffering from old age? Nah. He is nine months from 40, and 39 has been the new 29 forever in pro golf.
What about his revolving door of swing coaches? Just a symptom. The same goes for the slices and the hooks that he attributed to his creaky back. He blamed his withdrawal in February from Torrey Pines on the shutting down of his "glutes," whatever that means, and said he was healthy the week before in Phoenix, but still missed the cut to finish in a tie for last place.
Which brings us back to the problem: mental.
Soon after the "glutes" thing, Woods announced his sabbatical to work on his game. But now he likely is back and headed to Augusta, where he's earned four green jackets.
"I'd like to tell you that, if Tiger gets help [from a psychologist], oh, wow, he'll win the Masters. No problem," Devine said, laughing. "But I will tell you that, if he doesn't get help [from a psychologist] the rest of his career, I don't think he can turn the ship around. At this point, we haven't seen any glimmer of hope he can work this out on his own."