In bygone days, Tiger Woods probably would have made a point to play a practice round Monday for the PGA Championship.
He hadn’t swung a club at Bellerive Country Club in 17 years, and the forecast of thunderstorms was such that it could be tricky to get 18 full holes in before the tournament begins Thursday.
None of that mattered, because a 42-year-old with a fused back has to prioritize, and after grinding through four rounds and a tie for 31st last week in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Woods didn’t have a tee time Monday. He had an appointment for a long soak in a very cold ice tub.
“I needed the day off,” Woods said Tuesday. “Yesterday, I spent a few times in an ice bath, just trying to get the inflammation down and just trying to get ready for the rest of the week.”
Woods was coy about which parts of his body were inflamed.
“Everywhere,” he said with a grin, refusing to provide any detail.
This is where Woods now stands in his career. Playing a mere two weeks in a row — albeit on extremely challenging courses — requires preparation he once took for granted.
Among Woods’ 13 starts this season, only twice has he played back-to-back weeks. The first set in Florida resulted in encouraging top-10 finishes; the second stint in May was a mixed bag — ties for 55th in the Wells Fargo and 11th in the Players Championship.
“When I was playing well there for the better part of a decade, it was the same thought process,” Woods said. “It’s just to get rest and not to wear myself out in practice rounds, and make sure that I’m mentally and physically fresh come Thursday.”
He paused and smiled, knowing there was a caveat coming.
“What I did back then and what I do now are two totally different things,” he said. “I don’t lift as much, and I don’t run as much as I used to, to stay fresh. That part has changed.”
Woods ventured out for a practice round Tuesday morning at Bellerive, but only played five holes before thunderstorms pushed players off the course for a time.
“I only remember a couple of the holes, but I didn’t remember the first five I played today,” Woods acknowledged. “And so I’ll have to do some more homework tomorrow and get a good feel for what’s going on the rest of the week.”
Woods is less than three weeks removed from his best major finish in five years. In the British Open at Carnoustie, he stirred memories of past charges when he seized the lead on the front nine in the final round.
But he gave up three shots at 11 and 12 and fell back to finish three strokes behind champion Francesco Molinari.
“It felt good. It felt very familiar,” Woods said of getting into contention. “I made two mistakes there on 11 and 12, and it cost me a chance to win the championship.”
Woods fared well at hard and fast Carnoustie by often hitting irons off the tees. He won’t have that luxury at soggy Bellerive, which also features nine dogleg holes that bend to the left. Woods favors a left-to-right fade.
The driver clearly has been the most troublesome part of Woods’ game. He ranks 125th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, and he was in the trees plenty last week at Firestone.
Carnoustie gave Woods’ fans hope that he might be getting closer to snapping his 0-for-27 slump at majors since he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But there is still obviously plenty of work to be done.
On Tuesday, McIlroy called Woods’ progress in his comeback “unbelievable.”
“There’s a lot of layers to what Tiger has to go through to win again,” said McIlroy, who has won the most major titles (four) since Woods’ victory at Torrey Pines.
“He’s got all the components of the game. He’s learned how to make his swing work again. He’s learning how to compete again. He’s learning what you have to do on the back nine of a major on Sunday. … Even though he’s won 14 of these things, if you haven’t done it for a while, you still have to re-learn a few things, and I think he’s going through that stage.”
The PGA has been a good major for Woods. His four career wins put him behind only Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen (five). And Woods could have backed up his ’08 U.S. Open win fairly quickly in the PGA at Hazeltine in 2009.
But, for the first time in his career, Woods didn’t close out a 54-hole lead in a major. Little-known South Korean Y.E. Yang, with no wins in America before or since, tied Woods going into the back nine, and Yang chipped in for eagle at the 14th hole to eventually win by three.
“I had a good shot at it, and I didn’t do it,” Woods said Tuesday. “Y.E. outplayed me, and so it goes.”
And it keeps going, for much longer than Woods ever expected.