Five ways we’re rethinking Tiger Woods now
May 13, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Tiger Woods' 81 victories on PGA TOUR
Tiger Woods was destined to win 14 major championships, his father, Earl, predicted after Tiger won the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club. At first it sounded brash, but by the turn of the century, it seemed conservative. And for more than 10 years after Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the echoes of Earl at Newport C.C. seemed eerily prescient.
Not anymore. When Woods captured the 2019 Masters Tournament, his 15th major, it changed everything, and Earl’s bold forecast was only the beginning.
Here are five foregone conclusions we’ve had to blow up and reconsider as Woods prepares for the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he will play alongside “champion golfer of the year” Francesco Molinari and defending PGA champ Brooks Koepka in the first two rounds – the PGA’s traditional grouping of the last three major winners.
1. Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors are untouchable
Tiger Woods on matching Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors record
Not so fast, although even Woods seemed to buy into this one not long ago. He could barely walk. Couldn’t play with his kids. Four knee surgeries were one thing, but he needed a nerve block just to get through the 2017 Champions Dinner at the Masters. He flew to England that night and was told by specialists he needed spinal fusion surgery, which was performed in Texas.
His fourth back operation, suffice it to say, was a charm.
“I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think,” Koepka said after finishing in a three-way tie for second, a shot behind Woods, at Augusta National last month. That’s high praise from Koepka, who this week is aiming for his fourth major title in less than two years.
Added Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie: “You can’t be on 14 and thinking about 18. But now we can start thinking about 16. So, we’re getting closer.”
When Woods tees it up at Bethpage Black on Thursday, he will be coming off a 31-day break. (He skipped his usual start at the Wells Fargo Championship.) But no matter; he’s been down this road before. This will mark the seventh time in his career that he hasn’t competed between majors, and two of those times, at the 1999 PGA and 2008 U.S. Open, he’s come back and won.
He won the first two legs of the calendar-year Grand Slam at Augusta National and Bethpage in 2002. And while he was T6 at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage, the course was a quagmire and he got the wrong side of the draw. He was the only man in his wave to finish in the top eight.
For the U.S. Open next month, the golf world heads to Pebble Beach, where Woods won by 15 in 2000. Then, for The Open Championship, it’s off to Royal Portrush, which he hasn’t played.
A 16th major looks pretty attainable from here, and as LaCava reminds, you’ve got to take ’em one at a time.
2. Younger players will form a road block
You would think so, anyway. With their lower mileage, the young guys can out-practice him. And they’re really good. Just look at what happened at last year’s PGA at Bellerive, where Koepka (66) held off a hard-charging Woods (64) to win by two.
And yet Woods looked pretty young himself as he set the St. Louis fans to crazy mode at the PGA last year. Remember that wild birdie from way left of the ninth fairway? Peak Tiger.
He still has all the shots, as he demonstrated not just at Bellerive but also at the TOUR Championship and the Masters. What’s more, when things get tight, he may have a mental edge. He beat a suddenly out-of-sorts Rory McIlroy 2 and 1 in the round of 16 at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. And the unflappable Molinari hit the one shot he couldn’t afford at the Masters, finding Rae’s Creek to double bogey the 12th hole.
Many players don’t even bother to hide their awe at being paired with Woods, while even the most talented ones unwittingly become fans. As Tommy Fleetwood tweeted after Woods won the TOUR Championship, in part: “We’ve just witnessed the greatest comeback of all time! What a time to be alive!!!”
Xander Schauffele, who along with Koepka and Dustin Johnson tied for second at the Masters, tempered his disappointment with the fact that he’d had a front-row seat to history. Still others sounded the same refrain.
“It’s the greatest comeback in all of sports,” said Trevor Immelman.
Said Justin Thomas, “Hope I can do something to stop it.” But even Thomas was understandably thrilled when Woods slipped on his fifth green jacket. Those two, plus Rickie Fowler, had engaged in chipping contests as Woods began to make his way back from fusion at home in South Florida.
3. Woods no longer has the fans to carry him across the finish line
Tiger Woods wins TOUR Championship for 80th victory on PGA TOUR
Um, no. For one thing, that almost literally happened when the gallery ropes came down on the 72nd hole at the TOUR Championship at East Lake.
Tiger circa 2000 was something to behold, and we’ll never see such a frenzy again, but with Woods far more human and relatable than ever, he’s still got our attention and then some. The difference now is the deity gap has closed between him and the rest of us – life happens. Today, not only are the cheers different, he’s allowing himself to really hear them.
“Believe, Tiger!” a fan shouted as Woods walked off the 15th tee in the final round of the Masters. “Just believe!” In his prime, Woods could lower the temperature in the room just by walking in the door. He was not warm. But this time, he looked at the woman and nodded.
About an hour later, the roster of people who tweeted about his victory – Tom Brady to Serena Williams, Barack Obama to Donald Trump – was so long and varied it would be easier to list the athletes, movie stars and politicians who didn’t bother.
East Lake was nuts. St. Louis was crazy. Augusta National put the no-running rule to the test. And Bethpage? Well, it is New York. Expect it to be loud.
“I can’t even imagine,” LaCava told the New York Daily News last week as Woods began to prepare at Bethpage. “I think the atmosphere is going to be off the hook after winning the Masters.”
4. He doesn’t drive it and/or putt well enough anymore
OK, we probably should have abandoned this one when Woods didn’t hit a fairway on the front nine and yet still fired that final-round 64 at Bellerive last summer. He’s been hitting it much better than that, and said he felt better with the driver than he had in years at Augusta. What’s more, the rough at Bethpage Black is expected to be down considerably from the stuff that framed the fairways at the ’02 and ’09 U.S. Opens. His driving is not a big concern.
Nor is his putting, which under new coach Matt Killen has come a long way from his low point at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship earlier this season.
5. It can’t last
We’d seen so many breakdowns and WDs that there was an unspoken assumption after Woods returned that he would slip in a bunker, swing too hard, or hurt himself while tying his shoes. In other words, sure, he was back out there on the PGA TOUR, but for how long? It couldn’t last.
But why not?
Nicklaus was 46 when he won the ’86 Masters, and Sam Snead, whose record 82 TOUR wins Woods would equal with his next victory, won his eighth Greater Greensboro Open at 52. Nolan Ryan pitched his sixth no-hitter at 43, while a handful of other pitchers – perhaps the athletic endeavor that best combines the physical with the mental like golf – have twirled until around 50.
Woods missed the Wells Fargo Championship, which was a disappointment, but on the other hand it showed he’s serious about protecting his most valuable asset: his health.
In the words of Tommy Fleetwood, what a time to be alive.