Tiger tales - hunter to hunted

2020 PGA Championship / TPC Harding Park

The arrival of Tiger Woods at the 102nd PGA Championship at TPC / Harding Park was much anticipated — as it is anytime the 15-time major champion plays.

Tiger tales - hunter to hunted
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Woods won the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship and was the standout performer at the 2009 Presidents Cup – both events played at TPC / Harding Park. Although not listed as one of the presumptive favorites the belief among golf’s cognoscenti was that such familiarity would be a big-time asset for Tiger. even with his scant competitive play this year.

The 44-year-old started the event in fine fashion — a two-under-par 68. Tiger’s lowest first round score he’s posted in a major since the 2012 Open Championship when he opened with a 67 and would go to finish the event tied for third. Interestingly, Woods had shot an opening round score of 68 or better 13 times — but hadn’t done that again till Thursday’s first round. All told — the 68 was the fourth time Tiger has shot that number or better in the first round of a PGA Championship.

That’s the good news.

During Friday’s second round Woods struggled. The putts that were falling — stopped happening. The tee-to-green play was good but hardly memorable. Net result — a two-over-par 72 and making the cut by just two shots to spare. On Saturday’s 3rd round he failed to achieve any serious momentum and had to right the ship with two late round birdies just to score 72 again. In golf parlance — Saturday is often referred to as “moving day.” Tiger did move — backwards. Consider what Dustin Johnson did during the 3rd round. Beginning the round five shots behind — DJ fired a brilliant 65 and now sits atop the leaderboard going into Sunday’s final round. Should Dustin capture his 2nd major and first PGA Championship — the recent question marks about his recent PGA TOUR scores will fade as fast as the chances of Woods securing his record tying 5th Wannamaker trophy.

Woods has always been reluctant to share any crucial details about the state of his game and his overall health. It’s far easier getting salient details out of the Trump White House than to pry any such revelations from the lips of Tiger. The Woods mantra is nearly in line with the military code — just give name, rank and serial number.

The memory of his triumphant 2019 Masters win is still fresh but if it’s not clear to all it’s certainly clear to the top echelon of players that his 5th green jacket might just be the final epic win in his storied career. No player is actually mouthing the words but beyond the numerous surgeries the reality is that Tiger has significant miles on the tires. There’s also the reality that 72 holes requires four days of play — not just one or two rounds of note.

Some have opined that more events would sharpen his competitive framework. Conversely, the more rounds he plays risks elevating the possibility of him being sidelined and forced out of action once again.

Tiger tales - hunter to hunted
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

In his post 3rd round media briefing — Woods was quite forthright in the realities of where matters stand now.

“The reality is that the golf courses are getting bigger. They are getting longer. The margin between making the cut and the lead is a lot smaller than it used to be. Used to be sometimes 12 or 15 shots. Now, we had, what, nine shots? It’s just different. It’s getting tighter and it’s getting harder to win events, but you look at the leaderboard of most major championships, you see the same guys. May not be always the same winners, but you see the same handful of guys are there. They understand how to win major championships, how to win the big events, how to plod their way along, how difficult it is to win these big events.”

The candor Tiger provided clearly shows a keen understanding. In his prime it was Woods doing the stalking — taking no prisoners — establishing air-tight 3rd round leads. The process was a familiar one to the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Else, Vijay Singh, et all — once Tiger got the scent for the kill — the prey was quickly vanquished and became roadkill. The redundancy was so complete that each of the aforementioned realized the nearly invincible juggernaut the DNA of Tiger Woods was.

Tiger tales - hunter to hunted
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Fast forward to 2020 and a whole new generation of players are now establishing themselves. Just two shots out of the lead for Sunday’s final round is 23-year-old two-time PGA TOUR winner Collin Morikawa. When Woods won his record setting first Masters win in 1997 — Morikawa was just over two months old! Think about that. Unquestionably, Morikawa respects what Tiger has done in golf — but that has not meant giving into his competitive desires to beat Woods or any other competitor standing in his way.

Sports at the highest of levels is all about now. What someone did is nowhere near as important as what someone is doing. To paraphrase the famed quote from former NFL football coach extraordinaire Bill Parcells, “You are what your golf score says you are.” 

Like all the other competitors at this week’s PGA Championship, this is the first time Woods has played a major championship with no gallery present. The adjustment was something on his mind but not enough for him to use that as an excuse for his overall play.

“I’ve been accustomed to playing with a lot of people, and a lot of sounds and a lot of movement for my entire career,” said Woods. “It is different. But I just think that big events, you see the same guys, and we see Brooks (Brooks Koepka) up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there — whether there’s crowds or no crowds.”

Woods will begin Sunday’s round long before the leaders even arrive at TPC / Harding Park. His final round will undoubtedly conclude before the final pairing of Johnson and Scottie Scheffler start play. Woods was quick to acknowledge that other key events are upcoming — mainly the US Open and FedEx Cup Playoffs and the Masters planned for November. How long will Woods keep chasing the dream to catch Jack Nicklaus at 18 majors? Hard to say. One has to wonder if Woods would have been smart to call it a career when he donned the green jacket last year. In his own way — doing what Ted Williams did on his final at bat with the Red Sox — hit a final home run and call it a day.

Read next

Farmers Insurance Open R1

By M. James Ward

What makes the existing situation with Tiger so fascinating is realizing how great his golf truly was when a bit of time and distance provide a much clearer perspective. To his credit, the ultra-competitive Woods said all the right things about giving it his all with Sunday’s final round. 

“Last day and we still have another major championship to play and get ready for the Playoffs and we have the U.S. Open after that. We have some big events to be played, and hopefully tomorrow I can shoot something in the red and get it to under par for the tournament, and hopefully, I can do that.”

The old-time phrase — “time and tide wait for no man” — is ever true with Woods. No one personified the will to win with his insatiable desire — the constant need to hunt down major championships — play the keys shots when called upon and always sink the putts that needed to be dropped.

Tiger tales - hunter to hunted
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Ironically, the Woods of today is chasing that shadow of himself. Can the hunted golfer of today return to the role of the hunter? Woods has always relished being able to put the final stamp on his career — most especially to those who have doubted his wherewithal to rise again. Tony Bennett made famous the song, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” — for Woods he needs to dig down and decide he did not leave his golf game in the City by the Bay. 

Much to think about — so little time to right the ship. Winged Foot and the U.S Open await just ahead.