Tiger Woods brought a new game plan with him to Whistling Straits. Needing to play like the Tiger of old at the PGA Championship for a chance to make it to the postseason, Woods went off his "I’m here to win" script Tuesday to instead claim that he was in Sheboygan to prepare for the long haul.
"I’m just trying to get my game better for years to come," Woods said two days ahead of Thursday’s start to the men’s final major of the year.
Longtime Woods watchers had grown accustomed to the former world's No. 1 player -- even in the midst of another god-awful campaign -- claiming that the only thing worth playing for was, well, No. 1. At 278 in the world rankings now, squeezed in between the immortal Michael Hoey and anonymous Thanyakorn Khrongpha, lifting trophies seems as "forever ago" as his 1996 professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open that took place not far from this week’s event.
"I don't know my exact ranking right now," Woods told reporters. "I know I'm in the 200s somewhere. But as far as paying attention to it, no. I'm just trying to get better."
Mission accomplished, in that case, given Tiger’s recent play compared to how he kicked off the year. He compiled three rounds in the 60s at the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago, a huge step forward from the three missed cuts and one withdrawal the 14-time major winner chalked up in his first six tournaments in 2015.
But with no wins in two years, his major-less drought at seven-plus years and counting and his world ranking continuing to plummet, there is obviously still much room for improvement.
This will be Tiger's 70th major as a pro. If he doesn't win PGA, it will be 30th straight without a win (24th in which he has played)— Bob Harig (@BobHarig) August 11, 2015
In a year of "worsts ever," unfathomable short-game woes forced Woods to take a furlough in February. He refurbished his chipping enough to get to a share of 17th at the Masters. But his rebound was short-lived as his inability to find the fairway off the tee led to a career-high 85 and a last place finish at the Memorial.
For the first time since turning pro, Woods missed the cut in two straight majors, the U.S. Open and the British Open. In the middle, though, he struck his irons at the Greenbrier Classic better than he ever had and posted three sub-70 scores on tour for the first time since his T2 at the Barclays two years ago.
The 68-66-68 at the National were laudable scores but a third-round 74 knocked Woods out of contention as his driving deficiencies had pundits giving Woods little chance of making it to the weekend at the PGA. Not all that surprising since Tiger has not fared well in the past at the links-style track, finishing T24 at the 2004 PGA Championship and in a tie for 28th in 2010.
"You have to drive the ball well here," Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said Tuesday. "Big misses get penalized in a big way here and that’s going to be tough for Tiger this week."
The course’s head pro, Mike O’Reilly, could not have been more emphatic about the need to hit it straight.
"The severity of the mounds, the bunkering, now we have the rough grown out and it is so thick and the severity of the drop-offs adjacent to the fairways, hitting the fairway is big," O’Reilly told Business Insider. "If you do miss the fairway, if you're not 100 percent certain that you can advance the shot and get it on to the green, you might have to take your lumps to get it back into play."
Even the Big Cat, who has kept it in play off the tee just 55 percent of the time this year, echoed these sentiments.
"You look at this golf course and there's plenty of room off the tee. There's plenty of room on the greens," Woods said. "It's just that you have to hit both of them. If you don't, then you're going to have something that's pretty ugly."
All of which had Woods heading into the PGA just seeking some coherence to his game.
"Probably consistency," Woods said when asked what he lacked most. "Just being consistent on a daily level. I just need to be a little bit better from shot to shot."
That’s a far cry from how the winner of 79 tour contests, who’s 186th in the FedEx Cup standings and needs to get to 125 to qualify for the playoffs, used to define success.
"If you would have asked me right after I had my back surgery last year, what does your career look like, I didn't really have much of an answer. I was hoping to get back out here," said Woods, who, in the midst of another swing change after coming back from last year’s back woes, needs a stellar performance this week (and perhaps next at the Wyndham Championship) to extend his season. "But now I'm back out here at a level I can practice and play again. But also I have a totally different new swing. It was like the perfect storm of a surgery, rehabbing and then trying to learn a whole new pattern, it couldn't have been more complicated."
What could not be less complicated is what Woods needs to do to get back in the game -- this year or in the years to come.
"I'm here now in this position, and as far as my tournament future," he said, "if I play well, I play well and I'll play in more events."
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