Tiger Woods in Full
The winner of 15 major championships somehow grinded his way to the weekend at the PGA Championship.
Why should we not be surprised?
By Michael Bamberger
TULSA, Okla. — These are clips that won’t be on the “Life and Times of Tiger Woods” highlight reel:
• Tiger making a 10 on 12 on Sunday at the 2020 Masters — and going from there to the house in 5 under par, grinding all the way.
A grinder is someone who fights all day. — Tiger Woods
• Tiger making a record 142 consecutive PGA Tour cuts from Feb. 5, 1998 to May 8, 2005.
No record means more to me than that cut streak. — Tiger Woods
• Tiger making a 15-foot par putt on 12 in the second round of the PGA Championship on Friday after a double bogey on 11, a putt he had to make to have a chance to make the 36-hole cut.
I made a mistake on 11 and had to fight back, which I was able to do. — Tiger Woods
It was a two-towel round for Woods and his caddie, Joe LaCava. One towel for the clubs, the other for his face. He was perspiring heavily on a day that got hot and humid and downright summery by mid-afternoon. Walking down a modest hill on No. 8, at the aptly named Southern Hills Country Club course, Woods took a diagonal tack, because straight down any hill is painful on various body parts, both the original ones and the replacement pieces. Walking down a modest set of steps after his round, he held on to a white metal banister with a grip that you wouldn’t call casual, so careful has he become.
A reporter asked him: What makes it worth it?
“I want to be able to play the major championships,” Woods said. “I’ve always loved playing them.”
Anybody could say those words. Woods proved how true they were with his play on Friday.
Woods won the last time he played here, in 2007, in the PGA Championship. He is not now the golfer he was then, in almost every regard, except one: his capacity to try, to grind, is possibly his single-greatest attribute. You cannot go to a swing coach or a psychologist or anybody else and learn it. You develop it over a lifetime.
He played the Thursday and Friday rounds with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. You don’t get to do that at home. McIlroy was putting on a show, on Thursday especially. He was swinging so well. Tiger couldn’t help but watch. As Geoff Ogilvy said this week on a Fire Pit Collective podcast, Rory in full is one of the great sights in all of golf and has been for years. But all the while, McIlroy was watching Woods too.
“It’s just unbelievable, [Tiger] making the cut at Augusta and making the cut here,” McIlroy said. “Just incredibly resilient and mentally tough.” McIlroy had, he said, a “front-row seat” into, when you get right down it, Woods’s this-matters mindset.
“He’s the ultimate pro,” McIlroy said. “Looking at him [Thursday], if that had been me, I would have been considering pulling out and just going home. But Tiger is different and he’s proved he’s different.”
Yep. Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep.
He has nothing to prove to anybody and everything to prove — that is, continue to prove — to himself. He knows his skill set has deteriorated, with every club in the bag, from where he was 15 and 20 years ago. What hasn’t is his mindset.
Woods will always talk about playing to win. It’s a pre-recorded message, and that’s fine. On Friday, he talked about coming out on Saturday after a quick turnaround and pulling a Bubba. His contemporary Bubba Watson shot a second-round 63 and now sits solo fourth. Woods, at 3 over and in a 53rd-place tie, must believe he has that in him and maybe he does. Given the way he walked over these first two rounds, 73 is more likely, but who knows? That’s not the point. The point is, Tiger Woods is 46, and at 46 and way beyond his playing prime, we’re watching Tiger in full. We just don’t know it, because it’s not obvious. What he’s doing wouldn’t show up on a highlight reel. It’s internal.
We’re watching a man who will not quit.
Arnold Palmer kept playing and playing because he needed and loved the adulation.
Ben Hogan stopped playing because his standards were so high and if he couldn’t play at a level he found acceptable, he wasn’t going to continue.
Tiger Woods, this weekend and over these next 15 or 20 years, is not likely to take a page from either of those iconic golfers.
He’s going to keep playing to show himself the thing that made him great is still alive: the mental strength to grind it out and try his best and rise to the occasion. That 15-footer on 12 on Friday was no ordinary putt. Nor was the 14-foot par putt he made two holes later. Tiger Woods doesn’t do ordinary.
This weekend at Southern Hills, we’ll all be able to see that, whether he shoots 130, 140 or 150. We will see the man’s mental strength in full. But you’ll have to look closely to see it.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com