(AP) — Given the circumstances of a most peculiar year, the slogan of the final major – “Glory’s Last Shot” – might not apply to Tiger Woods.
In some respects, the PGA Championship is more like a fresh start.
This is the seventh time in his 15 years on tour that Woods has come to the last major of the year without having made any progress toward the record that matters the most to him – the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
In three of those seasons, he was changing his swing. Last year, he was going through a divorce.
This year, he simply hasn’t played.
Since closing with a 67 at the Masters, briefly sharing the lead on Sunday until his game stalled and he tied for fourth, Woods went four months without playing a full round because of recurring pain in his left knee and Achilles tendon. He missed only four tournaments he ordinarily would have played, but two of them were the U.S. Open and British Open.
Woods returned to golf only one week before the PGA Championship. His scores at the Bridgestone Invitational weren’t terribly impressive, but what mattered as much to him was that his left leg felt as strong as ever.
“We get four chances to peak per year, and unfortunately, I was only able to try and peak for one,” Woods said. “Obviously, my timetable isn’t very long to try and peak for the last one here.”
Yes, it’s his last shot of the year to try to win a major.
Could this also be his last shot at restoring belief that he still can reach or even break the Nicklaus benchmark? That he could get back to No. 1 in the world? That his red shirt on Sunday could still mean something?
Some of these could get answered when the 93rd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Woods is only 35. Nicklaus, when he was this age, went on to win five more majors in his career, and the Golden Bear might have won more if he had not already broken the record once held by Bobby Jones.
But the trauma in Woods’ life – physical and emotional – makes him an old 35.
It’s more than the four surgeries on his left knee dating to his freshman year at Stanford. Woods used to walk into the locker room or onto the practice range fully aware that the other players were looking him as golf’s best player, and the guy they would have to beat. Now they look at him the way everyone else does, wondering what’s going on inside his head, curious what kind of scores he might post.
The swagger is gone because Woods hasn’t won a tournament in 20 months. The aura is gone because golf looks deeper than ever. Three of the last five major champions are in the top 10 in the world and still in their 20s – U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer.
Like so many other young players, they have no reason to be afraid of Woods because they have not competed again him at his best.
And there are no guarantees they ever will.
“It would be a little intimidating if you knew for sure that he was going to come back and play the way he did in 2000 or 2001,” McIlroy said. “But who knows for sure what way the game is going to go?”
It’s a question that has been asked – and not answered – since Woods first returned at the Masters last year after his image was shredded over extramarital affairs.
His “comeback” lasted one tournament – a tie for fourth in the 2010 Masters – until he missed the cut in his next tournament with his highest 36-hole score ever, then withdrew a week later from another tournament with a neck injury. He picked up a new swing coach in Sean Foley late last summer and showed signs of immediate improvement, only to start this year with ordinary results.
He came back at The Players Championship on May 12 from what was described as “minor injuries,” only to quit after nine holes. Woods pledged not to return until he was 100 percent healthy, even to the point of missing two majors.
Another setback now and the skepticism will be as great as ever.
Still, he doesn’t see the PGA Championship any differently from other years, whether he was trying to win his first major of the year or his third in a row.
“It’s a major championship,” he said. “We get four a year and try to peak four times a year. It’s as simple as that.”
Not even after 13 majors have come and gone without his name on the trophy? Not even after not being certain for most of the summer that he could play the PGA Championship this year?
Woods shook his head.
“Feels the same,” he said, then raising his eyebrow with a slight grin and adding, “Looking forward to it.”
So many others feel the same way.
The PGA Championship doesn’t get the same respect from the public as the other majors, some of that because it’s at the end of the schedule and football starts to occupy American minds.
But there is no denying how tough it is to win. It features by far the strongest field of any major, with 99 of the top 100 in the world ranking scheduled to be at Atlanta Athletic Club when it gets under way on Thursday. If no one withdraws, that will be the most top-100 players at any major since the world ranking began in 1986.
For some, there could be a sense of urgency.
That particularly holds true for Lee Westwood, the first golfer to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world late last year and the best active player to have never won a major. And there had to be a feeling of “When is it my turn” for the 38-year-old Englishman when he watched one of his best friends, 42-year-old Darren Clarke who was No. 110 in the world, cradle the silver claret jug at the British Open last month.
Westwood is represented by Chubby Chandler at International Sports Management, who is going for an agent’s Grand Slam. His clients have won all three majors this year – and four of the last five including Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews last year. Not many could have imagined Westwood would not be among them.
Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world and also without a major.
And don’t forget the Americans, although that’s been easy to do lately. They now have gone six majors without winning, dating to Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters, the longest drought since this configuration of majors began in 1934. The highest-ranked American is Steve Stricker, who is 44 and starting to run out of time.
“It’s the last chance this year, and then we’re all a year older,” Stricker said. “And for me, a year older means the window is getting shorter. It would be nice to get one. I’m not putting pressure on myself to win. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to win one. But I’m not putting extra pressure on myself to do it.”
That’s the worst way to come into the PGA Championship, because as this major has shown, it could be anybody.
More evidence comes from a year on the PGA Tour that few saw coming.
There already have been six PGA Tour rookies to win this year, the most since the tour began keeping complete records in 1970. Some of that might be due to Woods being out of the mix because he used to win five or more every season.
Only three Americans from the Ryder Cup team last October have won tournaments – Mickelson, Stricker and Bubba Watson. And 12 of the top 30 players in the world who are PGA Tour members have failed to win on golf’s strongest tour this year, a list that includes Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Adam Scott and yes, Tiger Woods.
“It’s been a weird year,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “At least six or seven people have won tour events that at the start of the year you would never have heard of unless you followed the Nationwide Tour or Q-school. Jim Furyk is struggling to make cuts, Dustin is not playing like he normally does.”
Then he paused and showed a slight grin.
“Tiger might win,” he said. “Hard to believe, but he might. It’s been an odd year.”
Maybe that shows the state of Woods more than anything. Woods could win the PGA Championship, and it would be considered a surprise.