It’s not really about the season, he said a week ago. It’s about the year. Tiger Woods had his own judgmental way of looking at the past several months, which were not at all pleasant, and at the future.
So many of us saw his result in the PGA Championship a few days ago, and in the U.S. and British Opens—missed cuts all—and said it’s over for 2015.
Not to Woods. It’s never over.
A season? From last October to this October, in the PGA Tour’s non-calendar way of packing together a schedule. A year? Whatever. Woods salvaged it Thursday and made us remember what he used to do and what he still could do.
Woods carded a 64, his best competitive round since December 2013. He did was at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is not in the same category of difficulty or prestige as Chambers Bay or Whistling Straits. It also came under the rules allowable on a course flooded by rain: lift, clean and place. But it still was six-under par by a golfer who had recently missed fairways, putts and cuts in the last three majors.
We declared him a relic at age 39. We suggested he should take off the rest of 2015—whether that was a season or a year.
Jaime Diaz, the erudite and perceptive editor of Golf Digest, who has covered Woods since he was a teenager, suggested to me that Woods needed to get away from the game for a while. Woods ignored our advice. Smartly.
“I have plenty of golf to be played,” he said last Saturday, after he missed the cut at Whistling Straits. “The confidence is growing quickly. To have the control that I need to have going forward, it’s starting to come back.”
They say in sports that greatness is forever. A man or woman may not play at 39 as he or she did at 29, but the inherent skill remains. Pitchers have bad years—or seasons. Same with quarterbacks. Then when it seems they should retire, they show us the brilliance, if only in bursts.
On Thursday, Woods showed us more than enough—on the course with with seven birdies and only one bogey, and at the box office, with an additional 49,000 tickets printed and distributed when Woods confirmed he would play the Wyndham Championship. Any thoughts that Woods (blush) is boring or no longer an attraction are to be forgotten quickly.
Not all the big names are in the Wyndham. There's no Jason Day, Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy. No matter. For the first time in his career, Woods is in it.
If he continues to shoot as he did on Day 1, he would not only salvage his season (or year) but could get into the FedEx Cup playoffs, which would be an enormous emotional lift, for Woods and for the game. Dare we point out it’s not going to be easy.
The top 125 golfers qualify. After playing in only 11 events starting with the Waste Management Phoenix Open at the end of January and without a finish better than 17th (at the Masters), Woods ranks 286th. He would need a first or a solo second at the Wyndham to advance. He's currently tied for seventh, two shots off the lead.
On Monday, that would have appeared impossible. Now? Those 64s change everything, don’t they?
At Whistling Straits, he had 75 and 73—148, for two above the cut—and pointed out he wasn’t playing that poorly. But in majors, every mistake is magnified. As it should be. There has to be a reason a win in the U.S. Open means more than a win in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Woods arrived at the PGA Championship with lowered expectations. He said he was merely seeking improvement, progress. On the surface, as he missed a cut in a third straight major for the first time, there didn’t seem to be either. Yet, Woods said he found some satisfaction in his game, especially on the tees and fairways.
His putting, however, left him aghast.
“I’m just going to sit back and I’ll go through with my team,” he said before taking his leave from Whistling Straits. “We’ll talk about it, what I need to do and see if that’s the right move or not.”
After a round at the Wyndham, it seems to be. A 64, with only one bogey? He hadn’t had a score that low since a 62 on the second day at the 2013 Northwest Mutual World Challenge, where he finished second. And before that, a 61 on the second day at the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational, which set up a seven-shot victory. It was his fifth win of the year. Also his last PGA Tour win ever.
It’s been a tough many months for Woods in 2014 and 2015. But a 64 alters the process. It doesn’t mean he’s back, but it does mean he’s no longer in the back of the pack. He wanted progress. He’s got progress.
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.