Back to Akron: An ascendant Tiger Woods returns to the WGC Bridgestone

July 31, 2018

You only wish Barbara Walters had had one good crack at Tiger Woods: “Tie-ga, what are your wishes, your dreams, your goals and desires—what makes Tie-ga Woods tick?” Woods would have been flummoxed. He has never trafficked in dream-machine stuff. He plays a ground game.

Okay, yes, he did put that Jack Nicklaus growth chart on his bedroom wall as an only-child kid in Cypress, Calif., the poster that showed at what age Nicklaus won his first U.S. Open, completed the career Grand Slam, got his 18th major, etc. Goals for a lifetime, right there. Woods has talked (sparingly) about his desire to get 18 himself, and to keep going from there. But beyond that, can you recall ever hearing Woods speak of concrete goals?

He is far more likely, and this is telling, to talk about the steps of the ladder in his workshop: efficient use of his limited time on the range, improving his mobility, generating more clubhead speed. Also, the importance of reps and traj and the ever-goofy feels. (He could kill that s but then it would sound conventional. It would be calling Mark O’Meara Mark instead of Marco.) Woods’s historic greatness is rooted in his devotion to process, and not the rabbit-out-of-a-hat wizardry that defined, for example, Seve Ballesteros’s golf and life. Woods really is all about the process. If you google “Tiger Woods” and “it’s a process” you get over nine million hits and two videos.

So it was striking, on the Sunday night of the Players in mid-May, when Tiger Woods stood in front of a gaggle of reporters after his T11 finish and said, “There are some big events to play, and one of my goals is to get into Akron one last time before we leave there. I’ve won there eight times and I would like to get there with one more chance.” Then, tellingly, he added this: “But I’ve got to do some work between now and then.”

Woods was responding to a question teed up for him to talk about Nicklaus’s upcoming tournament, the Memorial, the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, or the British Open at Carnoustie. But he went straight for Akron instead: the final edition of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on the South Course of the Firestone Country Club in Ohio. Woods’s first Tour event there was in 1997, in the old World Series of Golf fall event.

As a quick aside, you have to admire Woods’s usage of old-school Tour shorthand for the event. He turns the Genesis Open at Riviera into “L.A.” the RBC Heritage on the Harbour Town course becomes “Hilton Head.” This week’s swan-song event is called, simply, “Akron.”

And while we’re on the subject of language and how Woods uses it, it’s also interesting to note his phrase “before we leave there.” We. The community of golfers who comprise the PGA Tour. In his prime, Woods was the lonest of lone-wolf Tour players. Did he linger at lunch in player dining? Oh, please: ask a serious question. But now he’s not just part of the golf establishment, he sits crossed-legged right in its red-circle center, alongside Davis Love and David Fay and Mike Davis.

Regarding Akron, there’s more genuine golfing history there than you might realize. The PGA Championship was played on the South Course—quaintly called (by golfers older than you) “The Monster”—in 1960 (Jay Hebert won), ‘66 (Al Geiberger) and ‘75 (Big Jack). Nicklaus earned $45,000 that week—the biggest payout ever for a major championship at the time. When Tom Watson won the British Open that year at Carnoustie, his winner’s check (7,500 British pounds) was worth about $16,000.

Woods, in his 16 appearances in Akron, has earned $11,075,625. Well, eight wins will do it. Eight! Jerry Pate, Brad Faxon and Geoff Ogilvy and Justin Thomas have had eight victories in their careers. Woods has also had eight Tour wins at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill.

It’s interesting to consider how well Woods has played there, after hearing Woods talk recently about his genuine love of treeless links golf on bumpy hard fairways and flat, slow green at Carnoustie just recently. Firestone is a tree-lined course with perfect, super-fast greens, and even though it looks long on the card—par-70, 7,400 yards—it doesn’t play long. There’s a thousand things you could say about Woods’s playing career and one of them is that there has never been a better fast-green putter, ever. The purer the green, and the faster, the better it was for Woods. As for tree-lined courses, Woods grew up on them, and he has always been long enough to hit a 3-wood or some other club in play if that’s what the hole demanded. You won’t likely see him hitting too many drivers this week.

All his wins at Firestone were in limited-field events, and those wins never seem to have the staying power and grandeur of the full-field events, except when the victor is Tiger Woods.

tiger woods
Dressed in Sunday red at Carnoustie, Tiger Woods showed he still had what it took to contend in a major. Credit: Getty Images
Getty Images

Maybe you remember his win there in 2000. It wasn’t just that he won by 11. (Ho-hum. It was Y2K. That’s the kind of thing Woods did, back then.) It was that he won literally in the dark, as play was delayed by rain. Cigarette lighters, before the cellphone flashlight became ubiquitous, helped show him the way. (Just as a one-off, wouldn’t it be fun to see the English golfer Tommy Fleetwood posing as the English musician Peter Frampton did on his famous 1976 album cover with the headline “Fleetwood Comes Alive!”) One year later, in the late summer of 2001, Woods won in a playoff over Jim Furyk. Furyk was leading after 18 holes, after 36 and after 54. He was tied after 72. But he wasn’t leading after 79. Woods won in a seven-hole playoff. That’s the kind of thing Woods did, back then.

You may be wondering: what if Tour events required 27 holes on Saturday and another 27 on Sunday, for a total of 90 holes? How many more Tour titles do you think Woods would have? The guess here is a dozen, at least.

As it happens, Woods has 79 Tour wins, and he’s been at that number since winning at Akron in early August 2013. Only Sam Snead, according to PGA Tour records, has more Tour wins, with 82. There’s a bright asterisk on that number. Gary Van Sickle of Sports Illustrated/GOLF.com did the definitive Snead win-count five years ago, threw out his hit-and-giggle victories and came up with 74 Snead wins that pass “the smell test.” (Read all about it here.) But this week is as good as any—actually way better—for Woods to notch No. 80.

Just the fact that Woods is in the 2018 Bridgestone field is a surprise, and is surely a testament to the power of both setting a goal and (so obvious it hardly needs to be said) doing the required work to achieve it. By mid-May, with two months left to qualify for this event—it’s kind of a shocker, isn’t it, to think of Woods having to qualify for an event?—there were two ways for Woods to get to Firestone one last time, before its 2019 move to Memphis. (Borrowing a famous Oscar-night line uttered by the director James Cameron, when it comes to the PGA Tour, the Memphis-based FedEx Corporation is king of the world! Really, more powerful than Tiger Woods his own self.) One way was for Woods to win a Tour event before Akron. He didn’t do that, although he did finish one shot behind the winner, Englishman-in-America Paul Casey, in Tampa. AKA, Valspar.

The other way to do it was to be ranked among the top 50 in the world in the Official World Golf Ranking by two different dates in late July. The only person in the world who understands the higher maths involved in the OWGR is Golf Channel’s Steve Sands. Woods himself thought after his T6 finish at Carnoustie that he was going to come up just short of qualifying for Akron. (He could have made things easier on himself by making that final short putt on the final hole.) But numbers, which are at the heart of the professional golf experience, are stubborn things, and the following day, when the new OWGR was published, Woods was No. 50 in the list, pushing out poor Russell Henley by .0122 of a point.

Woods was ranked 666—yikes!—after Torrey Pines. He was 80th after the Players. Then came Carnoustie. Talk about climbing the charts. The song of summer back in 2013 was “I Love It,” by the Swedish electro-duo Icona Pop. It peaked at No. 7 on the U.S. Billboard list. If Woods wins this week, he’ll be the song of summer, golf-style. More than Brooks K. More than Frankie M. Tiger Woods, 2018—the Lovefest Tour. Somebody should make a T-shirt. This week, Akron. The Hampton Inn near the golf course is already sold out.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]