By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - If Tiger Woods can resurrect his game from the astonishing depths he has plunged in recent months, it would be his greatest achievement in a stellar career, says respected swing coach David Leadbetter.
The greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time, Woods has tumbled from top spot in the world rankings to a mind-boggling 111th over the past year with many experts convinced that he is suffering from the "chipping yips".
A 14-times major champion, Woods will return to competition after a two-month break at this week's Masters with his short game in particular under intense scrutiny on a challenging, heavily contoured Augusta National layout.
"It's amazing to see how far he has fallen," Leadbetter told Reuters during the build-up to the year's first major. "If you think what he has done up to this point in time has been great, it will be nothing if he can come back from where he is now.
"If Tiger can get to a point where he actually wins majors again from where he is right now, that would be remarkable. it would surpass everything he has done before.
"He's gone to the dark side in a lot of different areas, not only with his golf swing but with his short game and his mind. It's shocking. You just can't fathom it with a player like him."
Leadbetter, best known for rebuilding the swing of fellow Englishman Nick Faldo who went on to win six major titles, believes that Woods' problems on the golf course are a combination of mental strength and technique.
"The mental and technical bleed into each other," said the 62-year-old Leadbetter.
"Because of the way Tiger's mind has been for so many years, even when critics would say, 'Hey, that's a difficult swing to master', the one he was working on with Hank Haney, he obviously made that work. He had a very successful period there."
Woods won 31 PGA Tour events and six major championships during his six years with swing coach Haney before they parted company a month after the 2010 Masters.
"Tiger was the sort of guy who could literally make several swings work, through his mind," said Leadbetter. "But for that to work, you've got to have a short game.
"If you look at Tiger's game, he wasn't the straightest driver of the golf ball in the world but he was a phenomenal iron player, had a brilliant short game and was a brilliant putter.
"He was one of the most creative short game players, even more so than (Phil) Mickelson. I think he had more versatility with his short game."
However, Woods' short game in his two tournament starts this year has made him look more like a struggling amateur than one of golf's best ever exponents and Leadbetter questions how he will fare on the slick, sloping greens of Augusta this week.
"His putting for a couple of years hasn't been quite as sharp and to see his short game now, that's going to be very interesting at Augusta because it is very demanding on the short game," said Leadbetter.
"Now it's like he is trying to figure out how to do it, instead of thinking, 'I can see this break here.' Tiger used to be able to figure a way to get the ball close or chip it in or something.
"He had an amazing imagination but he seems to have lost that, and we know strong or how weak the mind can be."
Leadbetter, who has also worked with former world number ones Nick Price and Ernie Els, has never coached Woods.
"Everybody hopes for the best that Tiger can come back but I just don't know," he said. "To actually even contemplate Tiger getting back to anything like he was, especially with the competition you've got these days, that's going to be tough."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)