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Tiger Woods' downfall? 34 putts

SYDNEY -- Two good rounds did not mean he was back, nor does one bad round mean he will never return. The rush to judge Tiger Woods' golf -- good or bad -- remains a fascinating study as the golf world continues to wonder when -- if? -- he will win again.

A halfway lead at the Australian Open was a positive sign his health and game are coming around. Then came a Saturday setback in which Woods bogeyed the first three holes at The Lakes Golf Club and never recovered, dropping to eighth place and six strokes behind leader John Senden.

This sort of ebb and flow happens in golf, but seemingly with every tournament, every round, every swing, Woods' prospects among the masses can go from doom and gloom to winning multiple majors.

Of course, it doesn't work that way, but with Woods, everything is skewed. Perhaps it has something to do with the small sample of work to judge. This is just the fourth tournament for Woods since he returned from injuries that sidelined him all summer, and a limited schedule has always led to more scrutiny.

Many golfers play their way into and out of slumps over a significant number of events, but Woods plays so few, the spotlight shines brighter on each one. So the fact that a third-round 75 was better than just eight players among the remaining 65 in the field was nothing short of disappointing.

"Shooting 75 is never exciting," said Woods, who went from a one-shot lead to trailing Senden by six strokes.

He started with those three straight bogeys, and the buzz he had created in Sydney was quickly gone. Woods now has shot over par each of the past three times he has held or shared a tournament lead.

For the third straight day, he hit 10 of 14 fairways, an encouraging sign, even if he is using a driver just three or four times a round. He hit 12 greens after doing so 14 times in each of the first two rounds.

But he had a horrendous 34 putts, a number that is never going to lead to a good score. Senden, for example, needed just 23 putts to shoot 63.

Woods spoke before the tournament about needing to turn a 74 or 75 into a 69 or 70. In his heyday, Woods did that by getting up and down from everywhere, by making crucial putts. It is clearly a part of his game that has not returned.

"The way I hit the golf ball, I probably should have shot around even par, maybe 1 under," he said. "I played the par-5s awful and made nothing. If I just putt normal, it's a 1-under-par round. You've got to take care of the par-5s, you've got to take care of 13 [a short par-4]. ... It doesn't seem that bad, but I made nothing today.''

Woods downplayed any notion of nervousness. He said there were too many holes left in the tournament for a second-round lead and final-group pairing to have that kind of effect.

As for his swing, Woods did not blame anything on working on the new move that he's been trying to refine ever since he went to work with coach Sean Foley.

"I really didn't feel that bad over the ball,'' he said. "I just made nothing, couldn't get any momentum.''

This, ultimately, will lead to the chatter that Woods will never get it back, that he won't build on his 71 PGA Tour victories or add to his 14 major championships.

This kind of talk baffles John Cook, Woods' longtime friend and practice partner at Isleworth in Florida. Cook is playing in the Australian Open and will be an assistant captain to Fred Couples next week at the Presidents Cup. Admittedly, he is a Tiger backer and has been saying that Woods' game is too good not to produce more hardware.

"The thing is, he's trusting what he is doing now,'' Cook said. "And those changes just don't come overnight, no matter what anybody says. I just don't understand ... guys get on TV and think they know more than him or say there is only one way to swing the club. And then they give up on him. He might not be the Tiger of 2000 or 2002. But who ever is going to be [that] in life?''

No doubt, Woods has offered up plenty of fodder at the Australian Open for those who come down on either side of his comeback story. The first two rounds showed he might have it; Saturday's, not so much.

Maybe it still will take a while for Woods to find greatness again, or maybe he never will come close to that level. Maybe he'll go another year without winning, or maybe he'll roar back Sunday to win for the first time in two years.

It still is impossible to say, and regardless of what happened Saturday -- good or bad -- it wasn't going to change that. It was a bad round, but only one round.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.