News & Opinion

The new Tiger Woods: Rarely seen, cryptically heard

Tiger Woods 2020 Memorial Tournament round 1
Tiger Woods looks more and more like a ceremonial golfer, showing up only occasionally and hoping to benefit from a hot hand, Mike Purkey contends.

One opponent that Woods can’t beat, the aging process, will further limit his starts, so don’t bet on seeing him again until the PGA Championship in 2 weeks

How do you become tournament sharp when you don’t play in tournaments? If reps at home are different from competitive reps, how do you get meaningful reps? How do you build momentum when you play only one event every few weeks?

If you roll the dice and your only hope is to catch a hot table, does that make the odds against you greater? And how do you react if you come up craps?

Tiger Woods is a walking, talking conundrum, and all of the above constitute an unanswerable riddle that he doesn’t appear to be able to solve. The reasonable conclusion to reach is that he is moving in a straight line ever closer to becoming a ceremonial player.

Will Woods win again and break Sam Snead’s record of 82 victories on the PGA Tour? Almost everyone thinks so. Will he win his 16th major championship? That’s a different question entirely, and a lot fewer will nod in the affirmative.

Look, Woods can do whatever he wants in this game. He can prepare physically and mentally in whatever way he thinks best. He has earned the right to play as few or as many times as it suits him, at whatever venue he likes.

But the sad truth is that he is physically limited, and anyone with a chronically bad back has experienced the crapshoot that determines how you’re going to feel from one day to the next.

In last Friday’s second round of the Memorial Tournament, Woods felt fine in his pre-round preparation. When he arrived at Muirfield Village and started his warmup on the range, he felt some discomfort, even pain. The result was a 4-over 76.

It was disappointing but understandable. And even predictable. He knows that the chances of playing four pain-free rounds are slim and that anything can happen to change things. “It's going to happen more times than not,” he said.

He had shot a respectable 1-under 71 in the first round that was made even more dicey by high winds and firm conditions. The second round took him out of contention to win, if that was even a reasonable goal, given that his previous competitive round was in February at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera.

He made the cut at Memorial on the number and shot 71-76 on the weekend to tie for 40th at 6 over, 15 shots behind winner Jon Rahm. Woods’ outlook appeared rosy, but it was difficult to tell how much of his disposition was for the camera’s benefit.

“Getting back into the flow and competing again and playing at this level, I hadn't done that in a while,” he said after his final round. “Playing at home and playing out here is so very different, and making sure that I stay sharp and don't make any silly mistakes and dump the ball in the wrong spots or give myself bad angles, that's one of the things about playing competitive golf that's very different from playing at home.

“I need to work on my putting a bit and clean that up. But as far as my swing, it felt good. I was able to hit good shots. Friday was a bit off physically, but overall for my first week back, it was a lot, a lot of positives.”

Lesser players look for the sunny side, and Woods never used to do that. If he didn’t win, the week was a failure.

He was asked on Sunday whether more reps would do the trick. “Competitive reps or more reps? More reps, yes,” he said.

“Competitive reps,” was the questioner’s reply.

“I definitely need more reps,” he said.

And therein lies the problem that doesn’t appear to be solvable. This much is clear: We won’t see Woods again until the PGA Championship in two weeks at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. He was asked Sunday when he would play again, and he responded with a typically cryptic answer: “Soon.”

It has been speculated that he could play in next week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude in Memphis, Tenn., but given his recent past, there’s no chance he would play two weeks in a row.

No one but Woods really knows whether he still believes deep down inside that he can win every time he tees it up. And only Woods knows whether that belief is still 100 percent or if the number has dwindled with each passing, painful day.

“Aging is not fun,” Woods, 44, said at the Memorial. “Early on in my career, I thought it was fantastic because I was getting better and better and better, and now I'm just trying to hold on.”

Is Woods the GOAT? That’s a discussion – or an argument – for another day. Regardless, history won’t judge him harshly if he shows up and can’t be competitive and ends up as one more body to fill up the field.

But Tiger Woods as just another player? Will any of us – especially him – ever be able to accept that?

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.