HAVEN, Wis.—Time accelerates. You will learn this as you age.
That’s why this statistic, while common knowledge, is nonetheless startling: Tiger Woods has played in 17 PGA Championships. This week at Whistling Straits will be No. 18. Tiger is fast approaching the 100-major mark in his career.
The young kid with the “Hello World” greeting here in Wisconsin in 1997? Well, that wasn’t just yesterday even if you think it was.
“It feels like forever ago, it really does,” Woods said with a chagrined smile Tuesday morning. “My buddies kid me that I live in dog years. It just seems like it’s been forever.”
It also seems like forever ago that Tiger Woods came to a major championship as the man to beat. Or, even, as a factor to be considered. He remains the biggest name and biggest draw in golf but he’s a curiosity now, at least until he shows us otherwise.
Sure, he was 17th at this year’s Masters, an impressive bit of guile he used to get around that course. And yes, he showed some positive signs at the recent Quicken Loans National, where he played his way into contention on the weekend, tanked his way out of contention in the third round, then made a stirring but short-lived run in the final round.
Still, the reality of today is that Tiger is a much different player, a much different person and has a much different role in golf than he did for most of his career. This isn’t news. This is the Tiger reality that we live with.
Old Tiger would’ve come here to win. New Tiger? That “win” word doesn’t come up so much. His old arrogant catchphrase, “second place sucks,” no longer holds true. A top-five finish would be his first since he was runner-up at The Barclays two full years ago.
This week, second place would really, really not suck. Tiger has to finish second to pick up enough points to qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoff series. Otherwise, his PGA Tour season is over, pending a last-minute entry into the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C.
Tiger is not one of the favorites this week at the year’s last major. Once again, the tournament headliners are players such as Jordan Spieth, two-time major winner; Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world who looked as if he might miss this PGA with an ankle injury; Bubba Watson, who’s been hot of late and nearly won here in 2010; and even Zach Johnson, your reigning British Open champ from the state of corn and pigs, Iowa.
But not Tiger. He is in recovery and rebuilding mode. He still has the potential to get his game in order and contend on the world stage but the longer it takes, the more doubters there are. He is not at the center of the golfing universe anymore.
“I don’t know my exact ranking right now,” Woods said. “I know I’m somewhere in the 200s. I’m not paying attention to it. I’m just trying to get better.”
We have lived with previous Tiger mantras. It’s a process. It is what it is. The new one has arrived: I’m just trying to get better.
This is a good mantra for him because it indicates upward movement and no immediate goals by which he can be judged.
Missing the FedEx Cup series. Nah, he’s not thinking about that, he says.
He’s taking a longer view, he says. Enter the New Mantra.
“I’m just trying to get my game better for years to come,” he said.
His mantra eliminates all pressure. It allows this week not to be do-or-die for him. He may or may not be a fan of the whole series, which effectively forces the top players to play for four weeks in a row. He’s not here to win, he’s just here to get better.
Who is this guy and what did he do with the real Tiger Woods? That’s what time and injury and a lack of success do. They change you. Or at least, they change the way you act or maybe the way you have to act.
New Tiger is still hanging onto his surgery as an alibi. OK, that’s totally legit. Well, mostly legit. When the topic of back surgery was brought up with Retief Goosen at Tiger’s tournament a few weeks ago, he scoffed at Tiger’s recovery time.
“Tiger’s surgery is nothing to what I’ve had,” Goosen said. “He had microscopic surgery. I had major surgery. It took me a good eight months to recover fully, if not longer. I would say it was a good year before I felt like I can go after the ball and hit it without any issues.”
The definition of minor surgery is, surgery that’s performed on anyone else but you. Tiger has also had knee surgeries. He has had problems with his achilles. His body has been compromised and without a doctor’s opinion, we can only take him at his word.
Tiger calls his current situation the perfect storm of surgery, rehab and learning a whole new swing pattern after he switched to swing coach Chris Como.
“It couldn’t have been more complicated,” Tiger says without acknowledging that it was his own choice to make a swing change.
That much is true. Golf is a complicated game when your results aren’t what you want. When you’re winning, the game is stupidly simple.
One other thing has changed for Tiger, too. He rose to prominence as a power player. He made Augusta National look like a pitch-and-putt course when he broke through to win in 1997. The phrase Tiger-proofing was invented because of him. He drove it 30 yards past everybody else in the field. That is no longer the case. He was asked, in sports terms, if he’s maybe lost a step or half a step and he joked, “No, I can still walk the same pace on a golf course.”
Old Tiger might’ve just glared at that question. New Tiger could make a wisecrack, smile, and then spin his answer.
“Seriously, I can't hit the ball as far as I used to, relatively speaking,” Tiger said. “I'm longer now in yardage than I was earlier in my career, but as compared to other players, no, I'm not.
“But my understanding of how to play the game has gotten much better. How to play all different types of venues, all different types of grasses. And I rely on that knowledge a lot when I'm playing, especially as I'm getting older now, to get me around.”
All of that makes Woods a player to watch this week, which is what he’s been every week he’s teed it up for the last two decades. This 18th PGA Championship comes with no expectations on him. He is here to test himself and test his game. If he’s here to win or if he expects to win, he isn’t saying so. As a Charles Dickens book, his revised title would be, “Low Expectations.”
“I’m just trying to get my game organized so I can be consistent and give myself a chance to win each and very event I play,” Woods said. “That’s what I have done over most of my career and I’d like to get to that point again.”
The Old Tiger might have said, I have to get to that point again or, I will get to that point again.
New Tiger says he would “like to” get to that point again. Maybe that’s a Freudian slip and says something about his waning motivation, maybe it means absolutely nothing.
To get his game back to where he wants, Tiger believes that all he needs is time. At 39 and nearing the 40 mark in December, time is no longer on his side. Even worse for Tiger, it’s picking up speed.