PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When anybody else makes a triple bogey on a Thursday morning, nobody cares. When Tiger Woods makes a triple bogey on a Thursday morning, everybody talks about it. Butch Harmon, Woods’s former teacher, was walking the TPC Sawgrass course Thursday morning, following Nick Watney, checking scores in a grove of trees on his cell phone. He saw Woods’s bogey on the first, his triple on the fourth, his bogey on the fifth. Before it was over, Woods shot 42. “I was surprised to see him play here,” Harmon said. “I’ll be surprised if he plays the U.S. Open.”
That’s where this WD is going. Will Tiger play in the U.S. Open at Congressional in June? Will Tiger Woods ever win a 15th major? Or an 18th, which would tie him with Jack Nicklaus for the most professional majors?
It is very hard to separate fact from fiction with Tiger Woods. Explaining his withdrawal, Woods said, “The knee acted up and then the Achilles followed after that, and then the calf started cramping up. Everything started getting tight, so it’s just a whole chain reaction.” But when he climbed a small set of steps en route to his waiting white Mercedes sedan, he took them by two.
I don’t doubt that his left knee and Achilles’ tendon were hurting, or that his left calf cramped up on him. But I also think Tiger Woods is about as physically tough as anybody who has ever played golf, and that if he liked the course and cared about the event and had striped his opening tee shot with a 3-wood instead of hitting a pull-hook, he would still be playing.
He was at the Players for only one reason: he needed, to use one of his words, reps. He needed more tournaments before the U.S. Open. In a pre-tournament press conference, Woods said, “The whole idea is that I peak four times a year, and I’m trying to get ready for Congressional, and I need some playing time. I missed playing at [Quail Hollow], a golf course I truly love playing, but I really want to get out there and play and compete. This is a big event, and I want to be here and play.”
Another Players title would do almost nothing for his golfing legacy, and a T48 would, of course, do even less. He’s way beyond all that — playing for checks and pride — which is why he didn’t finish his Sunday round at last year’s Players. The reason for his withdrawal then was an inflamed neck joint.
But the thing about Tiger, the thing that made him Tiger Woods — and this has been said a million times, but it’s true — is that he was the greatest grinder in the history of golf, or right up there with Ben Hogan and Bill Britton. But since returning to the Tour at the 2010 Masters, after his brief hiatus following his Thanksgiving 2009 “fire hydrant” debacle, we haven’t seen his old grinding ways. Asked why he doesn’t play more tournaments, Woods said, movingly, “Well, because I have a family. I’m divorced. If you’ve been divorced with kids, then you would understand.” I’m sure he’s trying to be the best parent he can be. That’s in his DNA. It’s also easy to imagine that golf is just not as important to him as it once was.
On Golf Channel, Brandel Chamblee’s analysis of Tiger’s problems was incredibly incisive. He talked about how Tiger has abused his lower body with his massive gym-built upper body. He said he once had the perfect physique for golf — “sinewy,” he said — and now he does not. And he did. The perfect body and the perfect mind. But not anymore.
Practicing putting is a boring activity unless you are extremely committed to improving. Tiger’s been hitting some beautiful iron shots this year. His driving has been iffy. His putting, by his old standards, has been a joke. He could have won the Masters easily if he would have made all of his five footers on Saturday and Sunday. You might say that nobody makes every five-footer. That’s not true. Tiger did, for years.
He actually smiled several times when he spent two minutes talking to reporters before making his Florida getaway while his playing partners, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer, soldiered on in the heat and the humidity. They’re playing to win. If they don’t, they’re playing for the money. What’s Tiger Woods going to play for? When he left TPC Sawgrass Thursday morning, where did he go? Who did he call? Not Butch. Sadly, not Earl. Not Elin. Who?