Woods needs to teach himself how to win again

Tiger Woods didn’t make a single birdie on the back nine in the final round of the Abu Dhabi Championship.

Kamran Jebreili

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Tiger Woods laughed at the question, and it was hard to blame him.

Woods had won 82 times around the world, including 14 majors. In the 47 tournaments that he had the outright lead going into the final round, only four players had managed to beat him. This was golf's ultimate closer.

But this also was a new world for Woods. In the 12 months since his personal life came crashing down, he not only failed to win, he was never in serious contention. On this occasion, the 2010 Australian Masters, he made two eagles on the last four holes to turn an ordinary round into a 65 and back his way into fourth place. He was asked that day if he would have to learn how to win again the longer he failed to get in the hunt.

"No," he said, breaking into a confident smile. Woods didn't even let the reporter finish a follow-up question, smiling while shaking his head. "No, no, no."

Three weeks later, Woods blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Chevron World Challenge and lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell. He later attributed that to being able to hit only one shot -- a draw -- while in the early stages of a swing overhaul.

A year later, when his health returned, Woods had a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the Australian Open and shot 75, falling six shots behind and never catching up. And then on Sunday in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, he was tied for the 54-hole lead with Robert Rock and couldn't hang with an Englishman who was No. 117 in the world with one career victory.

One shot behind when he made the turn, Woods didn't make a single birdie on the back nine.

Not to be overlooked was his win at the Chevron World Challenge two months ago, when he started the final round one shot behind Zach Johnson and birdied the last two holes for a one-shot victory. It was an important win because it meant something to Woods, yet it was hard not to notice how much harder he had to work to get it.

Woods is still not there. He never thought winning was easy, but he used to make it look that way.

So what to make of Abu Dhabi?

As usual, it's best not to jump to conclusions about Woods. Even back in more peaceful times, there were whispers that he was in a slump to start the 2001 season. He failed to win his first five tournaments, then went to Dubai and lost a one-shot lead to Thomas Bjorn, hitting into the water and making double bogey on his last hole.

"A lot of people are talking about Tiger being in a slump and he's not doing the right things," Bjorn said that day. "The guy is playing fantastic golf. He just hasn't won in the last couple of weeks."

Not years. Not months. Weeks.

Sure enough, Woods won his next three tournaments, capping it off at the Masters for an unprecedented sweep of the majors.

Expectations always will be higher for Woods for no other reason than his record was so astounding from the lead. After that loss to Bjorn until the 2009 PGA Championship, he was 25-0 with the outright lead going into the final round.

Over the course of a career, it's bound to even out a little. Winning, though, is more important than ever now.

Woods no longer has that aura of invincibility. That will only return if he starts winning with regularity, and it doesn't matter whether he beats Robert Rock or Rory McIlroy.

At the moment, no matter how much he has improved, Woods has not set himself apart.

To suggest that Woods faces deeper competition than ever before is to ignore his dominance, and to show little respect for those who had to face him at his best. When one guy is winning 11 of 29 majors while taking an average of six PGA Tour events a year, that doesn't leave much for everyone else.

But the more opportunities Woods lets slip away, the longer it takes to regain his edge, if he ever does.

In the meantime, Abu Dhabi can be perceived two ways. It was another chance for Woods to establish himself against this new world order, and he couldn't buy a birdie; or in his last three tournaments, he has won and finished third twice.

But the question remains from two years ago.

He took the time to learn a new swing under a new coach. Now does he have to teach himself how to win again?

For that, he has only one teacher.