Tiger Woods’ major winless streak hits 18 as he finishes T40 at the PGA Championship

March 20, 2014

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Tiger Woods was still chewing his mid-round snacks as he hit some of his shots in the final round of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill on Sunday. When Tim Clark aced the 11th hole, detonating a roar as Woods stood over his approach shot on the watery 5th, he didn't bother to back off and regroup. He drew the club back and hit safely to the middle of the green.

He had no chance to win this PGA by Sunday, so the epitaph for his year in the majors was already written even before he toured Oak Hill in 70 shots to finish four over for the tournament: Zero for four. And so Woods did as the rest of us would do on this postcard-pretty day. He subscribed to the adage that if you can't play well, at least play fast, getting around in well under four hours with a wide-eyed, 23-year-old Florida State alumnus named Brooks Koepka (77, 11 over).

The particulars for Woods in the majors in 2013: another T4 at the Masters (his third in the last four years), a surprisingly poor 32nd-place finish at the U.S. Open, a milquetoast T6 at the British after shooting 72-74 on the weekend, 40th at the PGA.

"It's more frustrating not being in it," he said. "Having a chance on the back nine on Sunday, I can live with that. It's always frustrating going out there and — I'm 3 over today [through nine], got to 7 [over par], and I'm grinding my tail off coming in just to shoot even par for the day. And I'm nowhere in it. That's tough. I'd much rather have it like at Augusta or at the British when I have a chance."

Twenty-two majors have come and gone since Woods famously picked up his 14th major championship trophy at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He has played in 18 of those 22, missing four with various injuries, and he has finished in the top 10 nine times, most memorably at the '09 PGA at Hazeltine, where he coughed up a 54-hole lead for the first time and lost to Y.E. Yang. Did that defeat really take so much starch out of Woods? Or was it his life blowing apart later that year? Is it his knee? His back? His swing? His putting? Does he want it too much? Yes.

On the bright side, Woods shot even par on Sunday despite hitting only four of 14 fairways and taking 30 putts. He has still won three more tournaments (five) than anyone else on the PGA Tour in 2013. He has eight months to find a solution to his malaise in the majors, and he gets next week off before the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, where he remains in the pole position. He's got his kids. He's dating Lindsey Vonn.

The less cheerful view is that he struggled here not a week after blowing away the field at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a stark reminder that 12 years after winning the Masters to hold all four major championship trophies at once, Woods sometimes can't keep his game together for more than one week at a time. He got worse off the tee every day at Oak Hill, going from nine to seven to five to four fairways hit. His back tightened up on Sunday. He scattered the gallery with a few especially violent swings with the driver.

Woods will be 38 when he tries to break his nearly six-year slump in the majors at the Masters next April, which means he is no longer ahead of Nicklaus's pace, as he had been since winning major No. 4 at 24½ years old at the 2000 British Open.

That's what their respective timelines will tell you, anyway. A closer look at Woods will tell you the race to 18 is more complicated than lining up dates and ages. He still wears the red shirt on Sundays, still has those boulder shoulders and that tapered waist. He still wears those bracelets that look like rubber bands around his left wrist. But at times, watch Woods in the majors and you're tempted to look closer, maybe even get right in his face in order to prove it's not really him, like Will Farrell in Elf exposing a fake Santa Claus. ("You sit on a throne of lies!")

Woods couldn't get his distances right on the front nine on Sunday, blowing his approach shot some 30 feet past the pin from the middle of the fairway on the 2nd hole, and watching his wedge shot cover the flag but come up woefully short on the par-5 4th. He putted poorly until making a few on the back nine. By then he was spraying tee shots even with his three-wood and especially with his driver, grabbing his back as if he'd hurt himself after an especially wicked lash at the ball.

Tiger Woods, who looked so good this year at Torrey, Bay Hill, Doral, Firestone South and even the vexing TPC Sawgrass, has almost totally vacated the Tiger Woods role in the majors. All that remains are the pre-tournament hype and the crowds, which remain a show unto themselves, his fans yelling "mashed potatoes" and "baba booey" and "get in the hole," anything to be heard. After the affairs and the humiliations and the apology in front of the blue curtains, Woods's notoriety inspires just as much odd behavior as it ever did.The highlight of his round on Sunday may have been his interaction with a man who did nothing more than stand in place next to the 3rd tee. Woods looked at the guy's big, wavy Afro and cracked everyone up with a smile and a simple response: "Wow."

Before this PGA began Woods said he didn't need to win it to consider 2013 a good year. After he'd come nowhere near winning at Oak Hill, he was asked what he might do next. "Try to keep up with a four- and a six-year-old," he said, and it seemed he was doing the only thing he can do in taking the long view. But one more year is in the books, four more majors gone by, and Woods, so good on his favorite courses, continues to play ordinary golf when it matters most. Wow.