For Tiger, golf just isn't fun anymore

I've had this theory about Tiger Woods for a few years -- and it has nothing to do with mistresses, sex rehabilitation or other tabloid fodder.

No, this is in regard to Woods the professional golfer. You remember him: 10-time player of the year, 14-time major champion, all-time great.

Even before Tiger went AWOL from the world, I had never confronted him about this theory of mine, simply because he would have disregarded the notion with an innocent shrug and confounded denial. That's OK, though. I didn't need to hear his thoughts, because I could see his actions.

From temper tantrums after sprayed tee shots to profanity-laced tirades based on shifting wind directions, from faraway stares as awestruck fans chanted his name to a general look of utter disdain while playing the game, the No. 1-ranked player helped formulate my idea from inside the ropes. Finally, I understood what was eating at the man, why he looked so miserable while he so often dominated.

Tiger Woods no longer enjoys playing golf.

This theory is more relevant now than ever before, because it serves as an explanation for why his current self-imposed exile has continued into what would have been his first appearance of the PGA Tour season at Torrey Pines, and might extend longer than most of us realize.

Even when healthy and without family obligations for a full season -- a combination that hasn't happened since 2005 -- Woods plays fewer events than nearly every other exempt professional. He has often admitted that he doesn't tee it up when on vacation. He's never even seen some of the world's best golf courses that haven't hosted top-level tournaments during his career.

Sure, his rigorous practice regimen is legendary, but that speaks more about his work ethic and dedication than his passion. Think about it: If Woods loved the game, wouldn't he seek solace from his damaged personal life in the familiar confines of a tournament? Wouldn't he attempt to claim some sense of normalcy in an all-too-irregular life by getting back to the one thing he does better than anyone else?

It wasn't always this way. Chances are there was no "Eureka!" moment in which Woods decided golf no longer affected him as it did before. Rather, it was likely a gradual occurrence, taking place between the time he declared, "Hello, world" upon turning professional in 1996 and when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia two months ago -- his most recent appearance on a golf course, which might be remembered more for Woods' bouncing a driver into the gallery in frustration than finishing atop the leaderboard.

Don't get me wrong. Tiger doesn't dislike everything about the game. In fact, he has thrived on performing in the competitive arena throughout his career. He loves winning, adores being better at a singular pursuit than every other person on the planet. He is driven to not only break every record, but to put each one out of reach for the next phenom who comes along.

That's not all. For better or worse, Woods might have also become dependent upon the luxuries that emanated from his status. Fame. Power. Money. If we are to believe the tabloid stories of his sordid affairs, each one fits this unraveling addictive personality.

The game itself, though? The actual act of swinging the club and strategizing his way around a course and trying to get the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible? That novelty wore off long ago.

Jack Nicklaus, the man whose major championship record Woods has spent a lifetime pursuing, was recently asked what golf has meant to him, and explained: "I played a game because I loved it, and I played it for the sake of the game. I played it because when I played that game, the competition, the charge that I got from it, excited me to be really good at something. It excited me to be able to focus on something, something to work at, something that gave me goals, something that filled my life with excitement."

The next time Woods speaks with such reverence and enthusiasm will be the first time. He has often been lauded for his businesslike approach to the game, but it's possible that his lack of positive emotion during anything but victorious moments has been misconstrued as focus and desire.

He is a perfectionist in a sport in which perfection doesn't exist. Maybe that's what happens when an athlete is consumed by competition from such a young age, as was the case with Tiger. He parlayed early lessons from his father, Earl, into immediate prominence, famously showing off for cameras on "The Mike Douglas Show" not long after learning how to walk. Somewhere along the way, though, this journey became more profession than passion, more function than infatuation.

If the story sounds familiar, that's because it parallels that of former tennis star Andre Agassi. Like Woods, Agassi was raised to be a champion, practicing every single day under the watchful eye of a demanding father. On the surface, the plan was a smashing success; he became one of the greatest players of the past half-century.

It wasn't until Agassi's 2009 autobiography "Open" was published, though, when the truth was unveiled. In the book, he writes of his last professional appearance at the 2006 U.S. Open and recalls thinking: "I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have. As this last piece of identity falls into place, I slide to my knees and wait. In a whisper I say: Please let this be over."

It is hardly a condemnation of Woods -- or any other athlete -- to identify the man's strong antipathy toward his chosen career. In every profession, there are those who love their work and those who abhor it, yet continue toiling away for various reasons. Since golf is viewed as more hobby than chore by the masses, it's expected that "professional golfer" doesn't fall into the latter category, but it is indeed just a job for many of those who are paid to play.

"Amongst all of us out here, the majority of us are infatuated with the game, have a very real serious love for the game, but a few of us simply play because we're addicted to competition and like the lifestyle that this game can afford us," one current PGA Tour member told me. "We're not as in love with the game as we used to be, so we treat this game as a job. For me, personally, it was something I realized in college. I worked hard to get to this level, but I wasn't really excited about golf once I started doing it more. It wasn't a passion, but it's worked out well. I came to the realization that you don't have to love something to be good at it.

"At this point in my career, I think in some ways it can be better because I'm able to put good and bad results away and focus more on my family life and things off the golf course. I'm not really qualified to do anything else that can provide the kind of lifestyle that I live in. It's an easy choice if you look at it that way."

It is a choice that Woods, unlike so many of his golfing brethren, need not make anytime soon. Even with sponsors dropping their affiliations and a reported divorce settlement on the horizon, he could very well live his regal life many times over without ever earning another dollar.

This should serve as a warning sign for those who wish to see him return to the competitive arena in the short term. If Woods doesn't need the money and no longer feels genuine passion for his craft, then his recurring self-query might mirror that of an actor playing a role: What's my motivation?

Perhaps it will be the aforementioned dividends that have augmented his golf career. He may wish for renewed -- or at least redirected -- fame and power, choosing to once again be known more for success than scandal. Or he will return to further unleash his assault on the record books, reaffirming his lifelong goal of passing Nicklaus' major championship mark.

There is one other option, though. During this difficult part of his life, in conjunction with his leave of absence from professional golf, maybe he will rekindle a love for the game that has waned in recent years. It could be invigorated by the unblemished click of a sharply stricken iron against a ball or the ultimate satisfaction of witnessing a putt disappear into the hole, but let's hope that at some point he reverts to that little kid who played the game simply because he enjoyed it.

Until that time, don't expect Tiger Woods to be inspired to return to competitive golf.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.