By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal staff writer
It has been 10 years since Tiger Woods hit the ''Shot in the Dark'' at Firestone Country Club.
Camera lights flashing as Woods hit a blind 8-iron approach into the 18th green that landed less than 2 feet from the pin. Fans in the grandstand holding up lighters and lighting matches like it was a rock concert. Woods tapping in for birdie and an 11-stroke victory.
''It's hard to believe it's been that long,'' Woods said Tuesday.
Inwardly, it probably seems like two decades ago.
For that was a different life ago, a different golfer ago.
His marriage and his reputation trashed by a sex scandal that came to light after a Thanksgiving night car accident, Woods is no longer a rock star.
In 2000, Woods was in the midst of the most amazing year of his career, winning nine times in 20 events, his three major triumphs wrapping up a career Grand Slam, setting or tying 27 PGA Tour records.
The goateed man who arrived at Firestone Country Club on Wednesday seemed a shell of that Tiger, at least when he spoke. He sounded subdued, somewhat distant, perhaps because of the end to his nearly six-year marriage to Elin Nordegren that is rumored to be coming this week, perhaps because he has yet to win in 2010.
Even as he prepared to tee off today in the $8.5 million Bridgestone Invitational that he has captured seven times, Woods took no consolation in the fact that he's back in his wheelhouse at Firestone South, where he equaled the course record with a 61 in 2000.
One would think how he performs in the World Golf Championships event will give him a true read on the state of his game, bedeviled by poor putting of late. Everyone seems to share that opinion except Woods.
''If I looked at it like that, I don't think I [would] have had the success that I've had,'' he said.
The only line of questioning that seemed to raise Woods' old fire was his ninth-place ranking on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list, which is based on earnings. The top eight after next week's PGA Championship will automatically qualify for the competition against the Europeans in late September, leaving only two picks for captain Corey Pavin. Some wondered if Woods would be interesting in playing in Wales if he were forced into the somewhat embarrassing position of being a captain's pick. But with what we know now, nothing about Woods and golf seems embarrassing.
''I'm planning on playing my way onto the team,'' he said forcefully.
He made a feeble excuse for his putting woes, attributing it to a lack of practice time because of commitments with his two children: daughter, Sam; and son, Charlie. He ranks 93rd on the tour in putting average and in statistics broken down by length of putts, the only one where he ranks better than 103rd is from 3-5 feet. (He stands second.)
''I haven't had as much time to practice overall with the kids. Life has changed,'' Woods said. ''People have been wanting more of my time. I've had more things going on once I'm at a tournament site than I have in the past, and for different reasons. That's taken a little bit of a toll on my preparation.
''I haven't practiced as much as I used to, nor should I. My kids are more important.'' He added that he will have to be ''more efficient with what I do and when I do it. But things are starting to normalize and that's been a good sign.''
While everyone in the room could appreciate a quest for efficiency, pardon those who want to see more in the family values department before they're all in with ''my kids are more important.'' The tabloid images are still too fresh in our minds.
The PGA Championship is coming up next week at Whistling Straits and if Woods goes 0-fer-2010, it would mark the second consecutive year he failed to add to his total of 14 majors. But he pointed out he has been through this before. After capturing the 1997 Master Tournament, he had a winless major streak of 10 before he scored in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. From 2002-04, he had another string of 10. He could also lose the world's No. 1 ranking this weekend to Phil Mickelson or Lee Westwood.
''I've just got to keep being patient, keep working, keep building, keep putting the pieces together,'' he said.
That task this time seems like a Humpty-Dumptian nightmare. Some wonder if his noted focus has deserted him as his personal life has fallen apart.
''It's been a long year. It's been a long 10 months,'' he conceded, sounding a bit weary.
The sordid part of those 10 months aside, what better place to invigorate Woods than Firestone, where he's delighted fans even with his misadventures? (Nine-iron over the clubhouse, anyone?)
If you're headed for the historic course on Warner Road this weekend, tuck a cigarette lighter in your pocket, just in case.