- On paper, an even-par 70 is as average as rounds get. But when you consider how the round and how the year started for Tiger Woods, it felt like anything but.
ST. LOUIS — On the 9th green at Bellerive on Thursday, after Tiger Woods holed a one-foot putt for par to finish his round, a fan in the teeming gallery bellowed: “Nice comeback!” And it was—or it is, or it will be. For the first time since 2015, the world’s most popular golfer, who was once the world’s best golfer, is about to finish all four major tournaments, having already made more money on tour this year than he did from 2014-17.
So yes, nice comeback, in a general sense. But more specifically, nice comeback today, Thursday, when Woods started out on a path toward disaster. Teeing off the back side at 8:23 a.m., in what would be the day’s best conditions before things got too swampy or windy, Woods bogeyed Bellerive’s par-4 10th hole and then found the water en route to a double-bogey 6 at 11. Not a half-hour into his day, he was three over on a forgiving course that appeared to be holding a grudge.
A birdie on 12 reigned things in but nothing was coming easily to Woods, who was back at three over par by the end of his seventh hole. He turned in two-over 37 after a birdie at 18 and from there he cruised. As the rest of his group—defending champion Justin Thomas and two-time PGA winner Rory McIlroy—struggled on Bellerive’s front nine, Woods found his step, logging birdies at 1 and 8 and, crucially, making zero bogeys over his last 11 holes. “I could just give myself a few putts at it, (I knew) I could turn this thing around,” he said after posting even-par 70. “I made a couple of good putts, but the shot at 18 was just a little 7-iron, held it a little bit. It was nice to kind of turn the tide going into the back nine with that birdie.”
In the muggy heat that clings to St. Louis in August, Woods opted to change his shirt on his third hole of Thursday. He always carries a spare, he explained later, and usually he changes right after his warmup, just prior to teeing off. But with nowhere to make the switch near Bellerive’s 10th tee box, he had to wait, ducking out of the way to freshen up after his dismal start. It would be far-fetched to anoint this a lucky shirt but fitting to consider what it symbolized, the conditions Woods had to overcome as he kept playing: rising temperatures, baking sun, air that might make you wish you had gills. At 9:30 a.m., a fan walked down the edge of the 16th fairway holding four Gatorades, and no one batted an eye; Weather like Thursday’s hits you like a hangover before you’ve even started drinking.
And as the damp mud baked and the shadows shortened, Woods corralled his game. “I could have easily gone the other way, being three over through two,” he said. “A lot of things could (have happened). Not a lot of them were positive, but I hung in there and turned it around.”
When Woods came off the course, he was five strokes off Rickie Fowler’s five-under lead, one off of Thomas’s one-under 69 and tied with McIlroy. The marquee group finished a bit after 1 p.m. to swollen crowds who seemed present for one reason alone: to see Tiger. Even at the worst moments of his round, when Thomas, the world’s No. 2 player, was at three under par and Woods at three over, the crowds seemed to find everyone but Tiger an afterthought. Oh, Tiger holed his putt? Move on, no matter that Thomas is about to tap his ball in, or McIlroy—who’s no slouch either, at No. 5 in the world. In this trio, numbers are upside down, hope springs eternal, and even so, it made some weird kind of sense.
In his pre-tournament media session on Wednesday, Thomas was asked about his trip to Valhalla to watch the 2000 PGA Championship. The tournament was played in Thomas’s hometown of Louisville, and Woods famously beat Bob May in a three-hole playoff. The younger golfer was just seven years old, and he says he doesn’t recall much that was intelligent about his impressions of that day. He can give a decent play-by-play, though: Although he watched in person for some of the afternoon, Thomas and his father were in the air-conditioned clubhouse when Woods holed a birdie to clinch the victory.
In St. Louis this week, Thomas invited Woods to speak at the Champions Dinner, a Tuesday-night event where the men whose names are etched on the Wanamaker Trophy assemble. In his remarks, Woods—who knew already that he’d be paired with Thomas in the first rounds of this year’s competition—talked about playing alongside Jack Nicklaus in 2000 at Valhalla. It would be Nicklaus’s final appearance in the tournament, and that weekend, the Golden Bear told Woods that he’d played with Gene Sarazen in the final PGA Championship Sarazen played, in 1971.
It was a kind of passing of the torch, and as Woods heard that story 18 years ago, Thomas was somewhere on the course, unknown, with some infinitesimal chance to ever become as good as he has. It’s a strange link from generation to generation, from past to passing to present to future, but in some ways, Woods broke any neatness we’d like to impose to that circle of life. After telling the story Thursday, he denied that 2018 would be his final PGA Championship, an instant and expected dismissal. For the past four hours, Woods had marched past hundreds of children who can’t remember the last time he won a major in 2008, who weren’t born when his personal life collapsed in 2009. They’re the generation of McIlroy and Thomas and Jordan Spieth, but they clamored for Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, little boys swinging from the ropes and asking their dads and uncles and older brothers if they could see over the crowd, if he’d hit yet, when was he coming?
And for all that, all the cumulative hours fans spent camping out awaiting a glimpse of Woods, Thursday’s round was little more than average: even par, the middle of the pack. With another day to play before the cut, Woods shouldn’t be worried yet about missing it, nor should the crowds at Bellerive expect him to contend. He’s right on the brink of something very good or something very bad—or maybe, worst of all, a weekend that’s neither. But for now, Woods is in it, a past champion still dogging the present.