Tiger Woods does not seem particularly interested in playing golf right now. After missing just his third cut ever at The Open, Woods walked off Royal Portrush and announced he’s skipping next week’s WGC event in Memphis. The WGCs have been hospitable hunting grounds and almost always starts for Tiger throughout his career, including last year when they became must-plays as he tried to work his way up the world rankings.
Now? It sounds like he just wants to get off the golf course and rest. “I just want some time off just to get away from it,” he said after his second round in Northern Ireland. “Getting away from it” felt like an odd sentiment after playing his first event in a month, one that lasted just 36 holes. Even though his second round was much improved from the opening 78 debacle, Tiger missed the cut by miles and posted a 70 in what were some favorable early scoring conditions.
Skipping next week’s WGC means he will have made only one PGA Tour start since the Masters. He conveyed he’d like to prep for and play the FedExCup playoffs, but even that could be TBD based on how he’s feeling. A handful of starts in the first quarter of the year before the Masters, the majors, and then some Playoffs are probably the new normal. What’s not clear is how competitive he can be even with that reduced schedule.
Tiger’s pre-Open schedule was the subject of some critique. On his decision not to play at all between the U.S. Open and British Open, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington inferred Tiger could not be “serious” about winning The Open. Even with a Masters title to his name this year, David Feherty called him an “unknown quantity” and Paul McGinley wrote:
“I wouldn’t rush to put any money on Tiger Woods. I don’t understand what’s going on with the Masters champion. Since April, he has entered just one tournament outside the majors — the Memorial in late May. That is bizarre. There must be something physically amiss we don’t know about because even in the zenith of his career 20 years ago he couldn’t have expected to contend for the big championships with so few competitive rounds under his belt.”
So the consensus critique was Tiger had not played enough this summer. Listen to Woods, however, and he sounds fried. It’s a weird state to be in given the lack of golf but this is likely how it’s going to be from here on out for his fused-back and broken down body. “Vacations” abroad take their toll, as he indicated after the round.
“I had a long trip to Thailand then trying to get ready for this event, to play this event, it’s been a lot of travel, a lot of time in the air, moving around and different hotels” he said about his family trip to Asia and subsequent trip to Europe. “I just want to go home.”
Tiger’s golf was very bad Thursday. It was slightly better Friday, although he disagreed. After the first round, he claimed he couldn’t “move as well as I’d like.” It’s hard to overstate how depressingly uncompetitive he was in the opening round. This wasn’t just a few big numbers or poor putting day. He was hopeless and bad from start to finish and there was no life at any point in the round.
It was clear he was not in great physical shape, but almost as concerning was how checked out he seemed right from the start of a major championship opportunity, the only thing he plays for anymore and maybe ever did. He didn’t even seem pissed off that he was playing poorly. Only late Friday did we see some of those characteristic Tiger club slams and recoils in anger. That actually came as a bit of relief compared to the lifeless first 27 holes or so.
The reduced schedule and physical limitations are the new reality and expected. But it will take some adjusting — for him and for us — to a Tiger that begins a major hopeless about his chances.
If this week accomplished anything, maybe that’s it: we gained some real insight into adjusting and accepting the completely dispiriting pall that takes over a round when his body is not going to cooperate. There are going to be many more of those coming down the line. He knows what this fused-back body can’t do anymore, but maybe we haven’t seen it so conspicuously present as we did this week at the Open.
“Just the way it is,” a resigned Tiger said Thursday night. “Just the way it’s going to be ... These guys are too good. There are too many guys that are playing well, and I’m just not one of them.”
This outlook is a different species from the one when his body was unconditionally wrecked during that stretch from 2014 up to 2018. There was a black and white distinction between being “hurt” and “back.” The proclamations were “I’m too hurt” and “I’m may not play again.” When you’re hurt, you can delude yourself away from the “not good enough” resignation.
Now it’s “this is who I am and will be” and with a full admission that it often won’t be close to good enough to keep up with superior colleagues. It’s a gray area that’s different from the Manichean dynamic of “hurt and shelved” or “I’m back.”
This is the gray area going forward. He has a decrepit body that’s as good as it’s going to be, which is good enough to at least play golf again, sometimes well enough to miraculously win the Masters, but often hopelessly uncompetitive. It may swing significantly from month to month, and probably based on if the venue’s temperature is agreeable for his patchwork body.
Memphis in late July would seem to be a venue with an agreeable temperature. Even with how bad it looked at the Open, it would be unsurprising to see him turnaround and contend in the Memphis heat next week. But Tiger is taking a pass on the WGC. Separate from the physical challenges, he sounds mentally exhausted and uninterested in golf right now. Tiger has come to fully understand the physical limitations and know immediately when it will be a day or week when things aren’t right. But when that occurs, there’s probably still a mental reconciliation and adjustment happening no matter how clearly and honestly he tells us the new reality of his golfing body.