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The field has caught up with Tiger

Tiger Woods keeps insisting his game's on the verge of a breakthrough even though he seems no closer than the wishful thinker in your weekend foursome.

Woods hasn't won a tournament since 2009. His stroke average is up nearly 2.25 per round. Whereas two years ago he placed top 10 in a mind-blowing 14 of 17 tournaments, he's been there only three times in 16 outings since that night in November of '09 when his secret life came to the fore and his marriage and carefully cultivated image unraveled.

Golfers all sound alike when discussing the obstacles separating them from success. There's always that meager advancement they interpret as a sign that they're close to solving what ails them. Maybe their ball flight has been more to their liking. Or the touch is returning to their short game. But golf's a Rubik's cube. Seemingly every turn that brings one row into alignment disrupts another.

The difference is Woods had earned professional credibility on the subject. He had cache. If he insisted a swing change was about to take hold then it was prudent to accept him at his word. He's won 95 tournaments worldwide, 71 of them PGA Tour events, 14 of them majors. He could change swing coaches, clubs and brand of ball on the eve of the Masters and still be regarded as the prohibitive favorite.

But that was then and this is now. He's 35 years old. His profound influence on the game has negated some of the advantages that once made him unique. Golfers throughout the tour scurried to make up ground when exemplary physical fitness was identified as a reason Woods' career was rolling like a freight train. They began shedding pounds and hitting the gym to build strength.

Nowadays, thanks to Tiger, golf is attracting more and more ready-made athletes. Last week Woods was paired with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland for the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Both have athletic backgrounds. Both rank in the tour's top 10 in driving distance.

"I'll be the Corey Pavin of my group," Woods said before the tournament. "It's a new game now. When I first came out on tour there was only one guy at the time, John Daly, that was over 300. If you're not over 300 now, you're not in the Top 15. The game has really changed. It's gotten long.

"Guys could have played baseball or could have played football at the D-I level, but no, they are playing golf instead."

The dynamics have changed since Woods was teeing it up 10 years ago, even two years ago. The competition is keener. His intimidation factor has been waylaid by his personal struggles, his time away from the game and his inability to recapture his previous form on anything but a fleeting basis. He's on the fourth swing coach of his career, counting his late father, Earl. What does it say when he found encouragement in his tie for 24th at the Arnold Palmer invite?

"I played well today," Woods said after his final-round 72. "I hit the ball well all day. Felt like I had, again, putted well today. I had good pace."

He sounds all like the others these days, a golfer trying to will himself out of a funk, striving to unearth specs of the positive amidst the frustration.

Woods said he'll be taking his game to Augusta National this week in preparation for next week's Masters. He's won there four times. The course abounds with fond memories.

But the pretournament focus will be the 25th anniversary of 1986, when Jack Nicklaus beat back time and won his 18th career major, a record Tiger once appeared destined to obliterate.

And now? It's looking far less likely. No longer is there any assurance that even Tiger at his modern-day best is good enough.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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