By Mark Lamport-Stokes
JOHNS CREEK, Georgia (Reuters) - After plunging new depths at the PGA Championship with his first missed cut at the major, Tiger Woods faces the once unthinkable prospect of being ranked outside the world's top 50 when he next competes.
His next scheduled event is the November 10-13 Australian Open and, should he not play a tournament before then, the former world number one would slide down to the high fifties in the rankings.
This would be a remarkable scenario for Woods, the greatest golfer of his generation and arguably of all time who has already won 14 major titles in a glittering career.
However, the last two years have been a veritable nightmare for the American, on and off the course, and he was not expected to fare well at this week's PGA Championship having only recently returned to competition.
After making a red-hot start to the season's final major with three birdies in his first five holes, world number 30 Woods spectacularly unraveled on the way to an opening seven-over-par 77.
That left him a staggering 14 strokes off the first-round lead and he followed up with a roller-coaster 73 on Friday to miss the cut after recording five double-bogeys in a tournament for the first time.
"I was in nearly 20 bunkers in two days and I had four or five water balls. So that's not going to add up to a very good score," a rueful Woods told reporters before heading home to Florida.
His early exit from Atlanta Athletic Club meant he failed to qualify for the PGA Tour's season-ending FedExCup playoffs and he clearly has plenty of work to do on his revamped swing before he returns to action, whether in Australia or before.
Woods does have plenty of options which range from teeing it up in the PGA Tour's Fall series, which generally attracts only the journeymen on the U.S. circuit, or perhaps heading across to the late-season events on the European Tour.
Asked whether he might add a tournament or two to his schedule before the Australian Open in Sydney, Woods replied: "I might.
"I know that I'm scheduled in November to go but, as of right now, that's the only commitment that I have."
If the PGA Championship does represent his final PGA Tour appearance of the season, Woods will end his 2011 campaign in the U.S. with just two top-10s in eight starts.
ON THE SIDELINES
His biggest problems have been injury and lack of practice. He was on the sidelines for three months while recovering from the left knee ligaments and Achilles tendon he hurt during the Masters in April, when he impressively tied for fourth.
He missed two majors, the U.S. Open and the British Open, and that unexpected hiatus was far from ideal as he continues working with coach Sean Foley through the fourth swing change of his career.
"This year has been frustrating because I was feeling somewhat healthy going into the Masters, put it together there and was leading the tournament with a few holes to go," said Woods who has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open nor any tournament worldwide since 2009.
"Then I got hurt, and I haven't played since really. So it's been frustrating from that standpoint, that I have not been able to practice and work, and obviously compete."
While bitterly disappointed and frustrated by his erratic display at Atlanta Athletic Club, Woods has been greatly encouraged by his improved health after recovering from four knee surgeries over the years.
"It's a giant leap forward in the fact that I played two straight weeks, healthy," he said, referring also to last week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational where he tied for 37th.
"That's great for our practice sessions coming up. We are going to be now able to work and get after it."
Woods has been excited by how cleanly and powerfully he has struck the ball over the last two weeks, though the extra compression has posed problems with his distance control.
"The changes I'm making, I'm hitting the ball further and that's something I have to adjust for," he said. "The ball is now coming off faster and I've got to get used to that."
Though Woods has been a shadow of his former self while trying to rebuild his golf swing and private life following the breakup of his marriage, it is still far too early to write him off.
All too often in the past, he has proved his critics wrong but his acid test will be the West Coast swing on 2012 PGA Tour next January and February when he has traditionally made a fast start to the season while building up to the April Masters.
Should he fail to regain his customary standards then, it will be very difficult for him to present a plausible case for the defense, especially with his fitness no longer a cause for concern.
(Editing by Simon Evans; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)