New specs helped, but Austin's confidence was shot. He has always been hard on himself, and now he has turned negative. In the second round at Pleasant Valley, for example, Austin's approach shot to the 11th green hit the front collar and kicked well past the pin. "When this year's over, I'm going to celebrate just because it's over," was his response. Then he made the 30-footer for birdie anyway. On the next hole Austin chunked a pitching wedge, left a sand wedge short and scrambled for an ugly bogey. "Why are you afraid to hit the shot?" he said, berating himself.
A self-taught player who fought his way onto the Tour after eight years of odd jobs, including a stint as a bank teller, Austin has no one to go to for swing help. "Did somebody put Woody on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED unbeknownst to us?" asked Tim Mork, Austin's caddie. "We're looking for any excuse. The most difficult thing is to see so much talent and to solve the insolvable—what's different?"
Austin's stats, for one thing. The most obvious decline is in his driving. Last year he ranked eighth in total driving, which combines distance and accuracy. After Pleasant Valley, he stood at 146th. On the range Austin still drives it straight, but on the course he loses control. "It's hard to describe how it feels to have no strength in your arms, but that's how I feel over certain shots," he says. "It's still a muscle memory game. If your muscles die, how are you going to hit a shot? If your arms feel like limp noodles, try to hit a shot. That's how I feel under the gun right now."
Whatever mechanical problems Austin developed have long since turned into mental hazards. Last week he played a solid first round but shot even-par 71. Distraught, he said he would need a 69 the next day and couldn't imagine how he would do it. Yet he did, then held together for a third-round 70. On Sunday, though, Austin made three double-bogeys on the front nine and plunged to 71st place, 23 shots behind Roberts. It's difficult to believe that he's the same guy who won the Buick Open two years ago, shared the first-round lead of the '96 U.S. Open and, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic last January, when his ball was up against a bush, swung a five-iron lefthanded, with the club head upside down, hitting a 150-yard shot that bounced off the pin and stopped three inches away. "I laughed all the way to the green," Mork says. "I said, 'Woody, do you have any idea how good you are?' "
Austin did two years ago, when he wasn't shy about saying that he felt he was as good a ball striker as anyone in the world—and he may well have been. "I couldn't imagine all the things that have gone wrong this year," he says. "For the first time in my life the game is beating me up so bad that I don't want to play. It has worn me out."
There is still time for Austin to get well before the season ends. Come to think of it, there isn't a better time.