We tried to temper our expectations and be realistic about this. But that can be hard to do when you’ve been deprived of Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour for some 522 days. The hype and anticipation of just seeing him again can overwhelm the facts on the ground — this is a banged-up 41-year-old golfer who hadn’t played competitively in a really long time and last looked like trash when he did.
Friday’s second round was an improvement from Thursday, but Tiger still missed the cut in his first start of 2017, the Farmers Insurance Open. This is not a surprising result. We may have been sucked in by some of the highs during that four-day hit-and-giggle game in the Bahamas last month. But that was not a PGA Tour event and it was also a benign little course. This was Torrey Pines, a major championship venue with uncharacteristically high rough for a regular old PGA Tour stop. It can also beat up on the best players in the game, the ones without a history of debilitating back injuries and a 17-month layoff.
Tiger truthers will tell you he’s back and it means nothing, and Tiger haters will tell you he’s completely washed. Tiger’s missed cut in his first event back fell within realistic expectations. That didn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch. This was the kind of slog we’ve seen all too often with Tiger in recent years. I told some golf writer friends Thursday that this could have been a round from Valhalla at 2014 or Congressional in 2015. The time and place and expectations are different, but the grind was the same with smiles and celebrations almost totally absent and exasperated sighs constant.
Birdie putt doesn't drop. Putter does. pic.twitter.com/HJVBFcr82U— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) January 27, 2017
His driver was totally unpredictable from the first tee on Thursday, a bomb right off the fairway that rattled around in some trees and resulted in a starting bogey. The driver was particularly ugly on Thursday, as he kept losing it right and then mixed in a high-handicapper smother hook left on his way to hitting just 4 of 14 fairways. It wasn’t as bad on Friday, but that remains the biggest problem for Tiger. Historically, he’s never been the most accurate driver, but his game was so good everywhere else that he could still recover and kick everyone’s ass. That margin for error is smaller these days.
Tiger began Friday’s round at 4-over and in a tie for 133rd place. He knew he needed to make a move and do it quickly in the second round. The good news was that he was playing Torrey’s North Course, the much easier sibling to the South Course. It played three strokes easier than the South in the first round, which was right in line with the historical data over the last decade-plus at the Farmers. So it was out there for Tiger — the opportunity to make a move and the weekend existed. From early on in the second round, however, it was apparent that kind of run was not going to materialize.
The driver was a little less wild on day 2, but he just could not string anything together to even threaten the projected cut line of even-par. When he hit a strong recovery shot, he failed to take advantage with his putter. The ball striking wasn’t especially crisp, either, with some approach shots dying at spots that looked almost two clubs short of the target, leaving the TV analysts muttering “huh.” That ball striking was dialed in back in the Bahamas, but not really in his bag this week. The birdie chances weren’t ample but when they arose, his putts burned the edges and left him clearly frustrated.
The final tally was an even-par 72 that left him him a good four shots of getting two more rounds on Torrey’s South Course, a place where he’s dominated and won eight times, including a U.S. Open. Despite the frustrating and dispiriting march, the result was still what we could have expected. His putter, the old Scott Cameron that delivered 13 of his 14 majors and is now back in the bag with Nike’s exit from the equipment business, was fine. That club was hot in the Bahamas and could be a big boost for him this season. The wedge game was impressive, which is an incredible relief.
A missed cut was not some sort of worst-case result. The worst-case result was a missed cut where Tiger finished near the bottom the board after chip yipping it all over San Diego. That would have been a catastrophe. Those yips, which always live deep down inside of you, were nonexistent again and his wedge game was often saving his poor ball striking. Those yips are somewhere, and even if they don’t conspicuously manifest themselves but for the time being, he’s appeared to have conquered it. Given those were as much a threat to ending his career as his back injuries, that’s an enormous relief for Tiger devotees.
So his putter looks fine and his wedges look great, and he played 36 holes without wincing in pain or grabbing his back. These are improvements and positive developments.
Tiger’s disappointing finish was also not some embarrassing outlier, like we’ve seen at some of the uglier moments in recent years. His playing partners, world No. 1 Jason Day and reigning Player of the Year Dustin Johnson, were also going to miss the cut. Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson were in trouble, too. Still, it continues part of a re-calibration of expectations in whatever we want to call this second phase of his career.
That number on the left is insane. INSANE. pic.twitter.com/8oSgWYmRPi— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) January 27, 2017
Tiger Woods by decade as a pro on PGA Tour, assuming MC today— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) January 27, 2017
1990s: 1 MC, 15 wins
2000s: 4 MC, 56 wins
2010s: 11 MC, 8 wins
Those 2010s numbers are pretty good! They’re just not what we came to measure Tiger by, which is maybe what’s so unfair about the 14-time major winner having to play the sunset of his career with cameras on the spot for every swing and tweets reacting to every shot. And it’s all measured so often against the guy so much of the wider audience got to know 10-15-20 years ago.
The European Tour is up next for Tiger, who will now have two extra days to get from San Diego to Dubai. The Dubai Desert Classic will be the second start of a four-events-in-five week stretch for the Big Cat. There will probably be more MCs in there, and that’s fine. We get caught up in the hype after missing Tiger for so long and keep getting disappointed when it’s an uneven slog. That can change, and Tiger might have another great decade in him, but it’s who he is right now and it’s not real pretty.