Old Course casts gray shadow on Tiger

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Even for a guy who says he loves St. Andrews unlike any other venue, Tiger Woods was not about to stick around and soak up the vibe of the Auld Gray Toon.

The world's still-No. 1 golfer made a hasty exit Sunday after an effort that can kindly be described as disappointing at the home of golf.

The walk across the Swilcan Bridge amid the ancient buildings on the famous 18th hole was to appreciative applause, not the raucous cheering that greeted him when he approached the 72nd green in 2000 or 2005 -- tournaments he won by a combined 13 shots.

This time, he was putting the finishing touches on what was really a meaningless round of 72.

He two-putted for a birdie that ended up leaving him a whopping 13 strokes behind winner Louis Oosthuizen.

After a promising start with a 67 and then arguably his best round of the year, a 73 in Friday's gale, he could not deliver over the weekend.

Woods used to win tournaments by double digits; now he's losing them by that margin.

Perhaps that is a harsh assessment given all that Woods has endured in his personal life, the time he took off from golf and the hasty return at the Masters that so far has turned into a winless 2010.

It is possible nobody was going to beat Oosthuizen this week. Then again, Woods was still a full 6 strokes out of second place. He certainly didn't come here to tie for 23rd -- his worst finish at a major in which he completed 72 holes since a tie for 24th at the 2004 PGA.

But think back a year. No one ever would have envisioned Woods having a performance on par with the disaster that is the ancient ruins of St. Andrews just down the street.

Nobody would have seen this coming then. Nobody would have suggested that Woods would go 0-for-3 at the three venues -- Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews -- where he's won seven of his 14 major championships.

"The good news is I've won half of them not on these venues, too," Woods said.

Always the optimist -- which probably is the way for Woods to look at the situation.

But as he flew across the Atlantic on Sunday night, he surely had to contemplate what is happening in his game, as he now has gone seven starts without winning in 2010, his longest stretch into a PGA Tour season without a victory since 1998.

"I feel satisfaction in the sense that I drove it on a string all week and hit my irons pretty good, but other than the first day, I did not putt well at all," Woods said. "You just can't play and expect to win golf tournaments if you have nine or 10 three-putts for a week. No one can win doing that. Got to clean that up before I tee it up again."

Woods made news when he said Wednesday that he was putting a Nike putter in his bag, the first time he's switched putters in competition in 11 years. Considering there are players who change putters weekly, it was quite significant for Woods to make such a move.

But after taking 99 putts through the first three rounds, including a ghastly 35 on Saturday when he effectively played his way out of the tournament, Woods went back to the Scotty Cameron model Sunday and needed just 27.

What does it all mean?

"I'm driving it better than I have in years, but I'm just not making the putts," Woods said. "It's ironic that as soon as I start driving it on a string, I miss everything. Maybe I should go back to spraying it all over the lot and make everything."

For what it's worth, most who play alongside Woods or watch him closely believe it is just a matter of time before he gets back to his winning ways.

Perhaps they are trying to avoid controversy, or perhaps they are correct.

"It was atypical Tiger; I'm sure he expects more," said Lucas Glover, who played alongside Woods on Sunday. "It wasn't him. But he'll be back. He hit a lot of good shots, and he didn't hit a bad shot on the two holes he made double [bogey]."

Woods has now gone nine majors -- two of which he did not play thanks to injury -- without winning. It is his longest stretch without a major victory since he underwent swing changes in 2003 and '04.

And in truth, he was further off in the major championships in those years, with just one top-5 finish and only two top-10s. Don't forget, Woods tied for fourth at both the Masters and U.S. Open this year -- his best tournaments this season.

"He really did strike the ball well, I thought," said Mike Davis, the senior director of rules and competitions for the United States Golf Association who served as a rules official this week and walked with Woods' twosome on Sunday. "People who have questioned him, I didn't see it. From the drive through the wedge, he hit it beautifully."

Woods now has a few weeks to get ready for a big final push this season. The Bridgestone Invitational, where he has won seven times, including last year, is next -- another gauge in his comeback, given his affection for and success at the Firestone Country Club.

Then it's the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he tied for 24th six years ago in the midst of his major championship drought.

Getting his 15th major title there would put all this talk to rest.

Whether he qualifies for -- and even cares about -- all the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup are discussions for down the road.

For now, Woods said it is simply a matter of "practice and getting the reps in -- and I'm going to go do that."

He certainly wasn't going to get caught up in the big picture, that he failed to win on any of his favorite major venues this year, that this is far from the season once envisioned for the guy who is still four majors behind Jack Nicklaus' record total of 18.

"That's just the way it goes," he said. "I'm not going to win all of them. I've lost a lot more than I've won."

And yet, it just seems so strange, Woods leaving the Old Course empty-handed, the Claret Jug never close to being in his grasp.

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