PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — For longtime Tiger Woods observers, the troubling signs were apparent almost immediately, from the time he set foot on the grounds at Royal Portrush after arriving from Florida.
There was a slow, steady cadence to his speech, a halting walk and word from Tiger himself that he had not even opened up his travel golf bag while on a two-week vacation in Thailand following the U.S. Open.
There was Woods’ own admission Tuesday that his game was not where he wanted it to be, some struggles on the driving range on Wednesday and then the cool, rainy temperatures that are kryptonite to a man with a bad back.
The result was hardly a surprise. Woods, who has now played just 12 rounds of competitive golf since his stunning Masters victory in April, missed the cut at The Open by a considerable sum. He had several issues, namely a rusty game and a stiff disposition, one that he freely admits is part of a new normal.
But there was more wincing and contorting than at any time in the 18-month competitive comeback, and there was plenty of reason to wonder if these latest struggles were something other than the simple everyday aches, pains and stiffness that are part of spinal fusion surgery.
Was this something more severe? A different disk issue than the part of the back he had fused? Another injury?
At times, it offered reminders of 2015, when Woods had spurts of success wrapped around struggles, including missed cuts in three major championships, or of 2016-17, when he had an aborted return after just three tournaments.
While Woods is unlikely to ever delve deeply into that subject, he has been far more open about the ups and downs he now experiences. And when he was asked if this in anyway was akin to those struggles from a few years ago, Woods was quick to slam on the brakes.
“You can’t compare the two,” Woods said after a second-round 70 left him five strokes off the cut line. “Those were some of the lowest times of my life. This is not. This is just me not playing well and not scoring well, and it adds up to high scores.”
That’s telling, because Woods could have easily danced around that question. Instead, he answered it directly, and it should offer some words of relief to those concerned about his physical condition.
Still, he has elected to sit out next week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, a World Golf Championship event in Memphis, saying he just wants “some time off to get away from it.” Playing two rounds of golf in the past month hardly seems like a stressful existence, but Woods did note the long trip to Thailand with his family, and then a cram session to get ready for The Open, which included a trip to Northern Ireland.
Playing five of six weeks, including next week’s tournament in Memphis, never seemed viable, although Woods, 43, could have elected to skip the first FedEx Cup playoff event instead. If he does play the Northern Trust and makes it to the Tour Championship, he will play three consecutive weeks for the first time all year — after playing consecutive weeks just once.
“It’s just a matter of being consistent,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you’re not going to be as consistent as you were at 23. Things are different. And I’m going to have my hot weeks. I’m going to be there in contention with a chance to win, and I will win tournaments.
“But there are times when I’m just not going to be there. And that wasn’t the case 20-some-odd years ago. I had a different body, and I was able to be a little bit more consistent.”
Of course, finding consistency is difficult when you play so infrequently. The lack of golf after winning the Masters was understandable, a missed cut at the PGA Championship part of the fallout. But then after a tie for ninth at the Memorial and a tie for 21st at the U.S. Open, Woods again elected not to play between majors.
Perhaps he had no choice. Nobody should begrudge him a family vacation. But if there is any lesson to be learned here for Woods, it is that showing up without competition is no longer a viable approach. And managing that balance between rest and rehabilitation and shots that matter will be an ongoing challenge.
After he won the Masters, expectations understandably rocketed again. There was talk of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors being in play, of catching Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour-victory record with another win, calculations for what it would take to get back to No. 1 in the world.
Instead, it has been a slow, steady leaking of air from Tiger’s big balloon. Woods admitted how much the tournament took out of him, but he wouldn’t say how hard it has been to try to climb back to those heights. Was he unable, unmotivated? Maybe, for one of the rare times in his sporting life, he was satisfied.
Max Kellerman says Tiger Woods won’t ever be who he once was, but his greatness will show through several times to win multiple major titles.
For the first time, he has missed two cuts in the same year he won a major championship. Only once before had he done that — in 2015, at the height of his struggles, he missed three. He has now missed 10 cuts in majors over his career, three in the past two years.
“It’s more frustrating than anything else because this is a major championship and I love playing in these events,” Woods said. “I love the atmosphere. I love just the stress of playing in a major. And unfortunately, I’ve only had a chance to win one of them and was able to do it. But the other three I didn’t do very well.”
The PGA Tour’s new schedule, which saw the PGA Championship move to May, proved to be a negative. Instead of last summer’s St. Louis heat at the PGA, where Woods finished second, he missed the cut at chilly Bethpage Black. Pebble Beach also offered those back-stiffening cool temperatures. Other than a few days in practice, Royal Portrush has hardly been balmy.
But Woods on Friday sounded far more upbeat than a guy who was worried about his future. He talked about going on a run in the FedEx Cup playoffs. He stressed the need to be prudent about his schedule to prolong his career.
And then there were the results. Sure, Woods missed the cut by several shots, almost all due to Thursday’s five-hole stretch he played in 4 over. He also failed to birdie any of the par 5s, playing them in 2 over. That is not conducive to contending. But for all the strife, he still shot 70 on Friday, and that included bogeying the last two holes.
For a guy who didn’t have it, there sure was a lot of good in Woods’ game. But that’s with the perspective of his limitations. Getting healthy will obviously be imperative, otherwise we should expect more weeks such as the short one he experienced at Royal Portrush.