CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They were a dozen deep at every turn on Tiger Woods’ trek at the Wells Fargo Championship. It’s the same everywhere he plays. People line fairways, crowd greens and are satisfied with no more than a brief look at the top of his hat of the greatest player of his generation, never mind actually getting to see him hit a shot.
But the way Woods has played eight tournaments into his latest comeback, it’s just like a cop to onlookers at the scene of a crime: Move along, because there’s nothing to see here.
We have to face the fact – and so does he – that at the moment, Woods, whose 79 victories include 14 major championships, is no more than an ordinary PGA Tour player. That will be sour news for his fans and music to the ears of his detractors.
Woods finished 72 holes at Quail Hollow Club at 71-73-68-74–286, 2 over par, mediocre enough for a T-55 finish at the Wells Fargo, 14 strokes behind winner Jason Day (scores).
To be fair, Quail Hollow is one of the most demanding courses on Tour, but at one time, Woods thought the tougher, the better.
The breathless excitement of Woods' return from a nearly yearlong absence for back surgery and the possibility of his ascendance to high-level golf once again have been replaced by yawns by some, impatience by others. Except, of course, for his legion of fans.
No matter which way you turn in the Tiger saga, it always comes back to the people who will walk miles and endure thick crowds to catch a fleeting glimpse of the legend and to be able to say that they were there.
The reality remains that not only does Woods still move the needle, he still is the needle. When he announced two Fridays ago that he would play in the Wells Fargo, the news immediately assured that the tournament would be a sellout. That’s something you simply can’t ignore.
But at 42, Woods is not a ceremonial golfer, not by any stretch. He still thinks he can win golf tournaments – big tournaments. But he’s going to have to raise the level of his game significantly to prove it.
Since January at the Hero World Challenge – his tournament – Woods has three top 10s and a missed cut. He was in the hunt at the Valspar Championship, one shot behind at the last hole. But he hit an iron off the tee because he couldn’t keep his driver in a 10-acre field and didn’t give himself a chance to win.
He tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational but, like everyone else, was left in Rory McIlroy’s vapor trail. Most recently, Woods started 73-75 at the Masters, made the cut and finished T-32.
Those are hardly Tiger-like results. In fact, they are the results of your garden-variety, middle-of-the-pack, anonymous Tour pro.
Realistically, few thought we’d ever see the old Tiger Woods again. At the height of his powers, Woods played almost otherworldly golf. He hit shots that no one else on Tour would even think to try. He never missed putts that he needed to make. And he left everyone wondering whether they had seen the best there ever was.
Woods now feels the pain of every struggling player: when he hits it poorly, he putts well, and when he hits it well, he putts it poorly. He just can’t seem to marry the two in the same week.
It was the same refrain at the Wells Fargo.
“Well, my ball-striking's been fine. I just haven't made anything,” Woods said. “If I would have made a few more putts, or just putting normal, I would have been up there next to the lead.”
Blaming his putting for keeping him from contention is the Tour player’s moan, as if putting weren't a part of the game. But, in his defense, Woods in his prime might have been the best putter ever.
“You know, when I'm putting well, I don't feel like I should miss a putt inside 10 feet,” he said. "I had a couple weeks like that. The '97 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open, I didn't miss one like that under 10 feet for the week.
“When we get in runs like that – you've seen Jordan [Spieth] do that; I've done that a few times. You get on runs like that where you just don't feel like you can miss one inside 10 feet. Now you throw in a couple from 30 feet and all of a sudden you look like, you know, your rounds are in the mid-60s every day, but you're not missing the ones you should make. That's basically the key to really playing well and shooting good numbers.”
No one in professional golf ever has become a better putter as he got older, if you listen to Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. We’ll see whether Woods is facing such a situation. But if he can become half as good of a putter as he once was, he has the chance to move away from ordinary and become extraordinary. Even if just for a glimpse.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf