BETHPAGE, N.Y. — The parade lasted 32 days and ended with one swing. Tiger Woods thought it was a good swing. He was happy enough with it to reach down for his tee before his ball began its descent, confident that it would end up in a happy place. It landed in the fairway, then snuck into a bad lie in the rough. Woods had to lay up, overshot the green on his pitch, missed a bogey putt, double-bogeyed his first hole since winning the Masters, and from this, we can conclude again: Tiger Woods is back.
Woods, like Michael Jordan or Sidney Crosby or Clayton Kershaw, is an extremely gifted grinder. He missed the championships, sure, but he also missed the grind, the daily anguish that golf provides, the awkward stances in bunkers and forbidding lies in the rough. It wasn’t all green jackets and Wanamaker trophies, not even in the old days. It was Woods, having gone from feted to fetid in one hole, walking off the 10th hole, his first of the day, two–over par and still right where he wanted to be.
Fans fell in love with Woods because he dominated the sport. But he fell in love with a sport that nobody really dominates. When Woods decided to give this game a go again, it was not necessarily because he had visions of catching Jack Nicklaus; it was because he wanted to give this game a go again.
On the 17th hole, his eighth, golf happened again. Woods hit into the front bunker, up near the lip, then arrived and discovered, “I had no lie. I got up there and there was no sand except for rocks. It was just bizarre.”
He flew it long and right, three-putted for his second double-bogey of the day … and still managed to get back to even par. He finished with a two-over 72.
“I fought my way back,” he said. “I had two double-bogeys and was still able to get it to under par for the day. Unfortunately I had a couple of three putts and a bad chip there at eight.”
Bethpage Black has thick rough and constantly changing elevations, and quite a few holes that live up to the public course’s famous signs: WARNING: The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers. But it is not quite as brutal as it looks.
This may be the best way to look at it: If you are wayward off the tee, it’s a U.S. Open. If you are in the fairway, it’s a PGA. Brooks Koepka, who was in Woods’s group, shot a 63 because his only fairway misses were on holes where it’s OK to miss. Woods said, “When I had a few opportunities with short irons, I played aggressively and had makeable putts. Otherwise…”
Otherwise, you might have Saturday off.
This is, already, probably not Woods’s week. We’ll see. He is staying on his boat again, as he did for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills last year, but this time he is doing it knowing he can win majors. He has contended to the end of the last three.
To contend in a fourth straight major, and to win his 16th, Woods will have to overcome a lot—not just the nine-stroke deficit to the talented and unflappable Koepka, but his own lack of preparation. Woods had not played a tournament since he left Augusta National. He played the Black last week, but he felt sick Wednesday morning and shelved his plan to play the back nine between 8 and 9 a.m. He started his PGA on the back 24 hours later and shot a 3-over 38. If he had that last nine holes of prep Wednesday, who knows? Maybe his Thursday would have been better. Maybe not.
What we know is that Woods made the only kind of choice he can make these days. As he acknowledged again at Augusta, some of his physical breakdown was his own doing. His instinct was always to push through pain, to squeeze more out of his body than other golfers squeezed out of theirs. He took great pride in it. His rush back from surgeries nearly ended his career. He will not rush now. It’s a difficult concession for golf’s finest grinder.