HAVEN, Wis. — Out on the man-built hillocks and swales that make Whistling Straits more difficult for fans to walk than for most pros to play, on the 17th green alongside Lake Michigan, Tiger Woods had an 11-foot birdie putt. He missed, of course.
There barely was a response from the fans who made the risky walk to that area, a murmur rather than a gasp. And in the virtual silence, a young man trying to whisper. As Woods failed with the putt, the man sighed: "Those used to go in."
And Woods used to be a factor in a major golf tournament, such as this 97th PGA Championship some 60 miles north of Milwaukee. Now he's merely an entrant, if a unique one, with 14 major titles, including four PGAs—part history, part curiosity and, if you insist, part irrelevancy, but that would be a small part.
He's still on our radar. The way we check to see what the weather is at some locale, say St. Andrews or Augusta, even if we're not traveling there, is the way we check Woods' score—which was a three-over 75.
After taking three from the edge on the third hole on Thursday, Woods muttered, "Same old, same old," berating himself with a head shake. That included some obscenities that were picked up by a TV microphone.
Woods no longer is bad, as when he had rounds in the 80s at Phoenix or the Chambers Bay U.S. Open. He's just boring. One event, he can't drive and can putt. Another—this one, the PGA—he can drive and can't putt.
"I hit it great today," he said of the PGA opener, "and probably had one of the worst putting rounds I've had in a long time." Woods, who used to be special, sounds like practically every other golfer: lamenting, not producing.
"I've had good putting rounds," he said, perhaps reminding himself as much as he was reminding us, "and then I had ball-striking days on those days, and then the flip side of it. So just have to get a combo right and then have it for three more days."
Did someone say just ignore him? Impossible. He's part of golf and will be forever, even when he retires, which, despite the implications of some, doesn't seem to be any time soon. Maybe Woods as currently configured is not helping himself or the game, but he's not hurting either. He's just out there, a face in the crowd, while the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroys—and yes, the Zach Johnsons—are on top as Woods used to be.
The connection again is made to Arnold Palmer, who continued to play long after his time of being competitive. But Tiger isn't Arnie. Palmer enjoyed the game and made us enjoy it. Curtis Strange, the last man to win consecutive U.S. Opens and a commentator on ESPN, said, "Arnie makes people feel good about themselves." That's not Woods, who is more protective and less open.
Woods is a golfer—lately one attempting to return to the past but very much stuck in the present. The confidence that once flowed has been ebbed. His repetitive line over the years was he didn't play a tournament unless he believed he would win. No longer.
During the pre-tournament media interview Tuesday, Woods was talking almost like a rookie. "I'm just trying to get better," he told us. At age 39, a man who for so many months was the best golfer on the planet is now telling us he would be content to improve.
"I'm just trying to get where I can win tournaments and get my game organized, so I can be consistent on a tournament basis so I can give myself a chance to win each and every event I play in. That's what I have done most of my career."
Not lately, however. He's dropped to 278th in the world rankings. Would you dare to have dreamed Woods could dip so low? Indeed, there have been injuries and swing changes. But the fall seems improbable, if not impossible. Woods went from No. 1 as recently as April 2014 to 278th.
When someone wondered if symbolically he had "lost a step," Woods answered, "I can still walk the same pace on the golf course." There was laughter. The problem is he no longer sets the pace. He's back in the pack. He's practically disappeared.
"I can't hit the ball as far as I used to, relatively speaking," he said. "I'm longer than I was earlier in my career, but as compared to other players, no, I'm not.
"But my understanding how to play the game has gotten much better."
And our understanding of late is that Woods hasn't mattered in most of the events he's entered.
Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.