LOUISVILLE — Golf fans of Kentucky and thereabouts got an eyeful of Tiger Woods on Friday. He hit his golf ball left, mostly, but also right, and ventured outside the ropes to see where it had ended up. About forty yards left of the par-5 seventh hole he walked into a shallow swamp.
By this time Woods was moving gingerly around the course, six over par and certain to miss the cut at the 96th PGA Championship. (He would sign for a 3-over 74 to finish six over par, nowhere near the cut line of +1.)
The seventh hole has a split fairway, with the left fairway offering the shortest route to the green, and the silver lining here — if there was one — was that Woods would be docked for missing only one of them (statistically speaking). From the swamp he pitched out to the fairway, missed the green left with his third shot, fluffed his pitch, and took no time over his fifth shot, a serviceable chip to within two feet of the hole for a bogey 6.
“I tried as hard as I could,” he said after the round. “That’s about all I got. Unfortunately, just didn’t play well. So consequently a pair of 74s, not very good.” As for his surgically repaired back, he said it went out when he hit a 4-iron on the range and was sore throughout. “As I said, it’s not where the surgery was. It’s a different area. When I fell out of that bunker [at the WGC-Bridgestone] last week, it’s the same feeling, the same pain and same spasms.” The solution? “Well, I need to get stronger,” he said.
Sean Foley, Woods’s swing instructor, was preaching patience.
“Look, I understand everyone has their job to do,” Foley said. “And I understand the importance of ratings and television and everything. I get that. But when you’re playing your tenth or eleventh competitive round in five months today — if a hundred percent is what you want in terms of preparation and time to practice, he’s probably at what, 10 percent? So when it doesn’t go from the range to the course it’s quite easily understood.”
Woods said he had a good warm-up session before his first round Thursday, but was all over the place on the course and shot a 3-over 74. Here’s what went down Friday: Foley watched Woods warm up, checking his posture and alignment and ball flight. Foley liked what he saw. If he was aware that Woods had thrown out his back, Foley didn’t mention it.
Then it all went wrong. Again. Simply finishing his round was a bit of a shocker. Players had been coming down with bad backs and bum shoulders and withdrawing all over rainy Valhalla, and everyone on site was waiting for Woods to grab his own back and call for a golf cart and a police escort, especially at the ninth hole, so tantalizingly close to the clubhouse.
“We almost got run over by photographers trying to get in position to take his picture walking off after nine,” said Padraig Harrington (71, 2 over, MC). Phil Mickelson, the other member of the threesome, shot a 4-under 67.
But Woods did not WD, and fans remained enthralled no matter how badly he played. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, a month shy of 65, shot 72-73 to beat him by three; the fans at Valhalla didn’t care. They lined the greens five deep to see the younger of those two aging legends. They wore UK caps and Louisville Cardinals shirts and muddied $120 shoes. They carried giant umbrellas and said, “Can you imagine dealing with this every day?” And, “He doesn’t like it, boys!” And, “Have a nice flight back to Florida, Tiger.” And, “You a’ight, Tiger, keep your head up.”
“He hasn’t had a lot of competition,” Harrington said as he packed his things into his courtesy car. “He hit the ball fairly consistently coming in.” (Woods birdied 15 and 18 and went one under for the final four holes.) But wouldn’t it be sort of crazy to use a captain’s pick on him for the Ryder Cup? “He’s a big force in golf,” Harrington said. “He brings an intimidation factor. I really don’t know what’s in Tom Watson’s head.”
At times Woods’s backswing was much shorter than usual, a sawed-off motion that continued to yield foul balls, and soon Woods looked equally despondent whether his shots wound up on greens and fairways or in bunkers and long grass. Did he no longer care? Was he in such discomfort that, compared to his physical woes, it didn’t really matter where his shots went? And if so, what was he doing out there, anyway?
No one knew until later that his back had gone out. “It’s hard because you want the bigger muscles controlling the golf swing,” he said. “I’ve got to rely on my hands to do it. The face is rotating so fast through impact because I’m just not able to get my arms and the body in the correct spot.”
Woods at least finished well, splitting the fairway at the par-5 18th hole before barely missing left of the green with his second shot. He two-putted for birdie from there. “He hit it a lot better today than he did yesterday,” said Mickelson, who eagled the 18th hole. “I didn’t notice him hurting, but it’s never fun when the ball isn’t going in the hole.”
Woods will almost certainly not make the four FedEx Cup playoff events, since he is 217th on the FedEx points list, with next week’s Wyndham Championship as his only chance at a big gain. Woods does not usually play that event. Where and when will he play next? “I don’t know,” he said. Is Watson seriously considering using a wildcard pick on this guy?
“Everyone wants to ring the alarm and come off with their diatribes, and that’s fine, that’s okay, but to me, logic wins the race,” Foley said. “If we had been playing for five months, with no back injury, and this was happening, um, then I’d really have to second-guess what’s happening. What I know about a healthy Tiger Woods is that he plays well. We just have to keep plugging on, and that’s just not what we’ve been able to do.”
What about the reps? After missing the FedEx Cup playoffs, where is he supposed to play? “If Monday was to become his off-season,” Foley said, “he could get more and more and more practice in at home.”
The reclamation of Tiger Woods, if it happens, may not be televised.