News & Opinion

Woods exits Portrush, vows more time off

It ended with him putting from 10 yards short of the green across flat, wet terrain to a pin maybe 75 feet away, a 6-handicap move with a 12-handicap result: Tiger Woods’ third shot at Royal Portrush’s 18th on Friday came up 20 feet short. Back in the day, he would have whipped out a wedge and skimmed a little two-hopper to 3 or 4 feet and saved par. Back in the day, of course, his presence on the weekend was all but a given.

It ended with him putting from 10 yards short of the green across flat, wet terrain to a pin maybe 75 feet away, a 6-handicap move with a 12-handicap result: Tiger Woods’ third shot at Royal Portrush’s 18th on Friday came up 20 feet short. Back in the day, he would have whipped out a wedge and skimmed a little two-hopper to 3 or 4 feet and saved par. Back in the day, of course, his presence on the weekend was all but a given.

At the 2019 British Open, Woods missed the 20-footer, tapped in for another bogey and doffed his cap to resounding applause, acknowledging grandstands full of golf fans who know greatness when they see it. Even if that vision is derived solely from memory. This might be the old man’s major championship – the average age of Claret Jug winners since 2011 is a shade over 36, five years higher than any of the other three gatherings – but Woods looked nothing more than old and cold at Portrush.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods acknowledges the crowd on the 18th green Friday during the British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

He finished at 6-over 148, five strokes beyond the cutline (scores). For all the optimistic projections/thinly disguised hope to emerge from Golf Channel’s morning telecast, Woods never came close to qualifying for the final 36 holes. He was 5 over after the front nine Thursday and didn’t make a birdie until the 15th. He managed a total of just five birdies in the two rounds. More than just his score, however, Woods offered a pre-tournament assessment of his game and on-course body language (once the trouble began) that were reflective of a man who knew he had no chance of contending.

“It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it right now,” he conceded during his Tuesday media briefing.

Talk about things we’d never heard before. That one sentence from Woods amounted to a staggering confession from the most obsessed major-preparation freak the game has ever produced. An overt sign of vulnerability straight from the mouth of a guy with a serious allergy to competitive weakness. And yet another indication that the kinder, gentler Tiger is a compromised golfer.

Bad back, 43 birthdays, decades of physical wear and tear…. Eldrick T. Woods was constructed from scratch by his father under the irreversible premise that mental strength is the most important weapon in the arsenal. To say that Woods has forfeited that edge once and for all is a blatant reach – the dude won the Masters three months ago – but in the here and now, one thing is obvious.

Woods’ season ended on Augusta National’s 18th green on the evening of April 14. Officially, he plans on competing in next month’s FedEx Cup playoffs, which is an obligation far more than an opportunity. And though he piled up eight victories at the WGC event held at Firestone through last summer, Woods will skip that same tournament when it “debuts” in Memphis next week.

Take that, PGA Tour.

“You have to understand: If I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long,” Woods added at Portrush.

He has made it a point on several occasions to declare how the Masters victory took a lot out of him. Really? Four days of very solid golf and a massive assist from Rae’s Creek, which gobbled up the golf balls and dreams of his four primary competitors, and Woods is still trying to recover? What used to be a relaunch toward another stretch of domination is now defined as a culmination. Yes, that 15th major title certainly punctuated Woods’ 16-month comeback, which began in early 2018 with a terrific start, then hit a couple of bumps, then jumped several rungs up the proverbial ladder with the Tour Championship triumph.

For all the giddiness to emanate from April 14, however, maybe Mount Nicklaus is safer than we thought. Woods isn’t going to break Jack’s record of 18 career majors by turning into a part-time golfer. He has proved that point by making the Memorial his only non-major start (ironic) since winning the Masters. Obviously, the guy is playing it safe by not playing due to health concerns, by conserving swings in an effort to protect his dodgy back.

Totally understandable, which doesn’t necessarily make it the logical course of action. Sooner or later, the idea of less = more comes with a point of diminishing returns. You save your spine but surrender your skills. The Woods we’ve seen at the past three majors bears little resemblance to the Woods we saw in his prime, or for that matter, the Woods we saw at the majors in 2018.

It’s a bit like the lottery. You have to play to win, or in this instance, stay active enough to stay competitive. History doesn’t smile on extenuating circumstances. It reaches out to hard work and an abundance of greatness, two factors Tiger Woods capitalized on for so many years in the first place.

Pun intended.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com