Keeping Score

Woods can crown his comeback today

ST. LOUIS – They say a tiger never changes its stripes, but apparently Tiger Woods changes his shirt. He did so yet again on Saturday in a porta-potty near the fifth tee during a 29-hole marathon day at Bellerive Country Club. After Friday’s deluge, the sun shone brightly with a vengeance, and Woods explained away his wardrobe change as a product of the heat and humidity and, well, he sweats a lot.

But when he switched from a light-green-and-white-striped shirt to one that was blue, it was shades of Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth and coming out dressed in his Superman cape. Woods reeled off three straight birdies beginning at the sixth hole and toured the first nine in 31. Game on. Woods was just two strokes off the lead, and it had that Hot Tub Time Machine feel back to the days when he used to whip fellow competitors Stewart Cink and Webb Simpson with regularity.

Tiger Woods
St. Louis turns out en masse to see Tiger Woods play his way into contention at the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.

© GOLFFILE/TOM RUSSO
St. Louis turns out en masse to see Tiger Woods play his way into contention at the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club.

"Kind of reminded me of being in the vortex a lot of years ago," Cink said. “It was awesome. Being in Tiger’s group is always exciting. Players try to downplay it – and I've downplayed it over the years myself – but it's a pretty intense environment out there."

Cink’s caddie, Taylor Ford, echoed that sentiment. "It was the longest day, but I didn't want it to end," he said.

As Woods mounted a charge on Moving Day, he whipped his considerable fan base into a frenzy. Some fortified themselves against the sweltering, muggy weather with cans of beer hawked by vendors at brightly-colored concession tents.

All week the galleries have been enormous. They've waited for years to see Woods in person after a World Golf Championship at Bellerive in 2001 was canceled because of the Sept. 11 attacks, and an injury sidelined him from competing at the 2008 BMW Championship. It felt like the lid might explode if Woods could keep making birdies, but he let all the air out of the balloon with 10 straight pars to finish his round. Woods limped home with a 4-under 66 that could've been so much more, if not for a balky putter (scores). And it wasn't for a lack of good looks. Woods took 18 putts on the back nine, including a three-putt par at 17, yet former British Open champion David Duval chose to look at the positives. 

“He was walking off the golf course at the start of the year looking like he shot about as best he could," Duval said on Golf Channel. "Now he’s walking off the golf course looking like he shot about the worst he could. And that puts him only a few shots back in this major championship.”

True enough, but there is another side to the coin. Woods will enter the final round of the 100th PGA Championship four strokes behind Brooks Koepka, in a tie for sixth with five others, including defending champion Justin Thomas and 2015 PGA champion Jason Day. If Woods is going to win his 15th major championship, he also will have to catch former Masters champion Adam Scott, who is alone in second at 10 under, and Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Gary Woodland, all of whom are hungry for their first taste of major-championship glory. 

"Everyone's going to have to shoot low rounds," Woods said. "Its soft, it's gettable and you can't just go out there and make a bunch of pars. You're going to have to make some birdies."

It's a tribute to his greatness that Woods has come back yet again to be competitive, but he has held the lead only for one hole, on Sunday at Carnoustie, and immediately made a double bogey and a bogey and never recovered. It's becoming a disturbing trend that whenever Woods has sniffed the lead, his game suddenly stalls. It's as if his Superman cape that made him nearly invincible when a trophy was within reach got lost at the laundromat.

If Woods is to make history today, he will have to defy it. It has to rank among the most astounding Woods-related stats that he has never won a major championship coming from behind. How can it be? 

"The obvious explanation would be that he wasn't behind that often, so he didn't have opportunities to come back," Cink said. "Don't forget, he was destroying the fields."

There is some truth to Cink's theory, but on 25 occasions Woods entered the final round of a major within seven strokes, and he has finished in the top 10 during 17 majors. So, with that information Cink took another stab at it.

"When Tiger wasn't playing his best, someone in the field had his 'A game,' and it's hard for even the greatest player in the world, in my opinion, to beat him," said Cink, noting Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open) and Rich Beem (2002 PGA) among those one-week wonders who came out on top. 

 

Still despite the bogey-double bogey start in the first round and his failure to finish off his round on Saturday, Woods is in the thick of the Wanamaker Trophy hunt. Maybe something Jack Nicklaus said at the Memorial in May will turn out to be prophetic. He recounted how in his win for the ages at the 1986 Masters he was stuck in neutral for most of the first nine on Sunday.  

"Finally, I made a putt at 9 and I remembered how to play," he said. "All of a sudden, you remember – particularly if you've been a champion at one time, you'll remember – and you have that to draw on. Tiger has it to draw on. But he's got to get through the barrier of not having done it for a while."

Will he step out of another porta-potty on Sunday and play like Superman again? All we know for sure is the color of the shirt definitely will be red.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak


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