LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tiger Woods was fully nine shots off the lead after the opening round of the PGA Championship, but the more telling numbers were these: He hit four one-handers and three wild tee shots, landing in a forest, a creek bed and over a fence. He was so far back that a couple of club pros and a 64-year-old were ahead of him.
The really bad news for Woods was that the old gent he trailed was Tom Watson, the Ryder Cup captain who shot 72, two strokes better than Woods’ 74. And who would be guilty of both treason and sabotage if he picked Woods now to represent the United States against Europe next month. It’s time to give up the pretense Woods is an important factor in golf at the moment and admit he’s a back-spasming, lurch-swinging wreck who doesn’t appear anywhere close to regaining his form.
Still, the cameras followed his every move, from the tying of his shoes to the wiping of his brow, and breathless announcers still talked as if he might break out at any moment and win his 15th major championship. No wonder Woods sometimes seems to exist in an alternate reality. “If I get under par for two rounds, that will be right in the ball game,” he said. But the fact was his 74 was a poor number on a day when par-71 Valhalla, the Jack Nicklaus-designed jigsaw of a course, was still and forgiving. Not a breeze rustled the thick oaks or rippled over its black lakes, and co-leader Lee Westwood literally birdied half the golf course, shooting 65 even with a double bogey, thanks to nine birdies. Rory McIlroy ran off eight birdies, including four in a row at one point, for a 66. The calm and generous conditions revived even the struggling Phil Mickelson, who birdied two of his final four holes for a 69.
“When you’re not in the final groups for a while, you just get unconfident,” Mickelson said. “I need to make confident, aggressive shots from here on in. My game is finally coming together, and the confidence is coming with it, but it’s still on low.”
It was hard to see how Woods could take much genuine confidence from his own round, not after such disastrous swings off the tee, which were compounded by a strange tentativeness with his putter, leaving everything short. “A lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole,” he said. It’s Woods’ job to stay positive about his game, but right now he just sounds wishful. On Wednesday, when asked whether he still expected to win, he answered shortly, “Yes.” But after Thursday there were more than a hundred guys standing between Woods and the lead of the final major championship of the year.
“My swing was dialed in on that range out there,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I just didn’t carry it to the golf course.”
In reality, the only thing Woods was dialed into was the Samsung Phone Zone, a trampled-down area outside the fence bordering the par-5 seventh hole. That’s where his tee shot landed, to shouts of “Fore!” He actually lucked out when his ball came to rest in a spot where he could claim a free drop because the fence-line obstructed his line to the green, and he went on to par the hole. It was his best save of the round, in which he made four bogeys to just one birdie, and hit just eight of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens.
“The man looks like he needs to play some golf,” said Padraig Harrington, who played in a threesome with Woods and Mickelson. “He looked kind of raw. Like he needs more rounds.”
The question is whether Woods’ body will allow him to play those rounds anymore. Here is an unavoidable fact: When Woods won the 2000 PGA Championship here at Valhalla, it was one of six victories overall for him that season. This season, he hasn’t even been able to play six complete tournaments. Disc surgery in March seemed to correct his ailing back, but last week he withdrew from the Bridgestone Invitational with spasms from a “pinched nerve” that Woods said was unrelated and instead involved some sort of displaced bone. “Once they put the bone back in place it was fine,” he said.
As ESPN analyst Bob Harig points out, Woods has played just 24 rounds this season and 14 of them have been over par, including a 77, 78 and 79. Since his return from surgery at the Quicken Loans National at Congressional last month in Maryland, eight of his 10 competitive rounds have been over par.
Obviously, the golf world is starved for greatness because Woods’ mere presence here became a mini-event. His last-minute physical recovery and arrival in an SUV on Wednesday for his practice round caused a media swarm in the parking lot. But the focus on Woods can get obnoxious, especially when deserving players are nearby. On Wednesday Ian Poulter tweeted jokingly, “BREAKING NEWS – I have just left Valhalla Golf Club.”
On Thursday, Poulter took the podium to meet a throng of press after shooting a 68, but a PGA official cut his interview short after just three questions, saying, “That’s all we have time for.” Poulter, mystified, moved aside. A moment later, PGA officials ushered Woods to the podium. “Ahhh,” Poulter said quietly. “There we go.” He had been shunted aside for a player who had shot six strokes worse than him because his name was Tiger Woods.
His back, Woods, reported, was fine but “a little bit stiff.” Asked whether he would go to the range and work on his game, he said, “Not today.” Instead, he said, he would go get treatment on his back. A few minutes later, his SUV was gone from the parking lot.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org