PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Golf is a slow sport, and not just when J.B. Holmes plays it. Holes can take 20 minutes, rounds can take five hours, tournaments take four days, careers span decades. One of the game’s challenges is it gives you so much time to think—about the next shot, the next hole, and about the guy standing on the 14th tee here Friday, leaning forward with his hands behind his back, then standing up and rolling his head around, trying to loosen his neck.
Tiger Woods … fill in the rest of the sentence yourself, I guess. At times in the last two days, he looked like a broken man. But those were just two days. Along with his more celebrated qualities, Woods has an amazing ability to make us overreact.
He missed the cut at the British Open, then said afterwards that he will take some time off. That means missing the World Golf Championship event in Memphis next week. He said he is tired. He said he wants to go home. He did not ask for his favorite blanket, but the request was implied.
Still, some perspective here: In the past year, Woods won the Masters, the Tour Championship, and contended at a British Open and a PGA Championship. He is currently ranked No. 5 in the world. We need to keep those facts in mind here: Masters champ, contended in three majors over the past 12 months, fifth in the world. These are top-line resume items for any golfer in the world right now. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy would gladly trade their achievements of the past year for what Woods has done.
Woods’s win at Augusta National was not a fluke. He has since missed the cut at the PGA and now at the British. These are also not flukes. He did not look ready to contend at any of the last three majors, though he did finish tied for 21st at the U.S. Open. He has clearly not had enough healthy days in the past three months—to compete, but also to practice.
The story of Tiger Woods’s golf game in 2019 comes down to this sentence: When he feels good, he can win majors, but he does not feel good as often as he would like. It’s pretty simple.
“Things are different,” Woods said. “I’m going to have my hot weeks. I will win tournaments. But there are going to be times when I’m just not going to be there.”
Let’s try to remember this, and let’s not hold Woods’s newfound candor against him. After his first-round 78, he sounded like a guy who didn’t feel like he could compete here, but that’s just how he felt that day. In the second round, he shot a one-under 70, and he should have gone lower. He was in prime position on all three par 5s and went bogey-par-par.
There was no miracle cure administered on Thursday evening. He said afterward that, physically, “Nothing’s changed. I kind of grinded my way around the golf course today.”
Asked if this feels like a few years ago, when he looked like he would never play another major, he said, “You can’t compare the two. Those were some of the lowest times of my life. This is not. This is just me not playing well and not scoring well.”
Again: He won the Masters, the Tour Championship, contended at a British Open and a PGA, and is ranked No. 5 in the world. He is still a fantastic golfer when he is right. His Masters win did not mean it is 2006 again and Tiger can win more than half the tournaments he plays. It never meant that. It was never supposed to mean that. That was the whole point: It is 2019, and Tiger is 43, and he has a fused back and has had several surgeries and he went to rehab, and he still won the Masters. That was what made it amazing.
His ailments did not suddenly vanish in April. They are part of his life, and they will be part of his life forever. They will keep him from dominating the way he once did. But if he is in truly horrible physical shape, worse than we realized, he has given no indication of it. He talked matter-of-factly of participating in the FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin in early August. That does not sound like a golfer who wonders if he can play.
He has had three disappointing majors in a row, and maybe he reminded us of what we already knew, even in the euphoria of his win at Augusta: the old days are gone. Back then, he expected to win everything. But he also always said this: any year when he won a major was a successful year. It was true then, it’s true now, and it will be true when he puts tee to ground at the 2020 Masters.