PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Tiger Woods slashed at this PGA Championship like he meant to kill it, taking great cuts at the fairways and sending divots the size of pork chops flying through the air. He glowered and thrust out his lip as he stalked across scenery. Yet he got nowhere.
Rarely is a quality golf course as weakened as par-70 Oak Hill was in the PGA Championship on Friday, so rain softened by two days of storms that some wit named it Soak Hill. And rarely is the top player in the world so unable to move up the leader board in inviting conditions as Woods was. It’s increasingly doubtful that this is the place where Woods will break his five-year drought without a major title. The guy used to be the greatest door closer in majors, but lately he can’t even open it.
That was the takeaway from the second round after Woods struggled to shoot even-par and stood at 1 over for the tournament on a day when the red numbers fell thick as the rain and produced some historically low scores. Jason Dufner threw down a 63 that was tied for the best round ever in a major. Earlier in the day, Webb Simpson had tied Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange’s course record of 64. And for an example of movement, there was K.J. Choi, who shot 65 to move up 94 spots. Compared to them, Woods was almost stationary.
Is Woods totally out of it and condemned to finish another season without a major? Of course not — but he’s 10 strokes back and in a tie for 38th. Was he alone in his inability to score? No — Phil Mickelson couldn’t do anything on Oak Hill either. “It’s a course you can attack,” said Mickelson, who tried but whose consecutive rounds of 71 were constant struggles to bail himself out of trouble. The audience was crazy for Mickelson, urging him on with deep guttural cheers, which he rewarded with errant drives into the deep oaks and spruces. Whap. He’d hit into the trees. “Atta boy Phil!” someone would scream. Whap. He’d drive it into the deep rough. “We love you Lefty!” someone else would holler.
Woods kept his ball in better position, but his consistency betrayed him down the stretch. He went birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey on his final four holes of the day, and it wasn’t an encouraging sequence. But perhaps the most telling hole was the short par-4 14th, where he lashed an utterly majestic drive to the reachable green to give himself a 50-foot look at eagle. He then ran his putt five feet past the pin. And then scalloped the birdie attempt around the edge. It was a three-putt par. And totally disheartening.
On Thursday, Woods had finished a round of 71 with a double bogey on the final hole. Afterward, he tried to sugar coat it. “I played really well,” he insisted. “The round realistically could have been under par easily.” This tells us what state Woods is in: pleading with himself to believe he can still get under par in a major.
Woods’s habit of making happy talk about the state of his game is difficult to interpret. He has a habit of saying “I’m really close” when he clearly is not. He is either lying to us or lying to himself, and in either case it’s not an encouraging tone. He alternates this with a tendency to blame a variety of external factors and bad breaks for his inability to score. For instance, he suggested it bothered him when his group Thursday was put on the clock for slow play. “We have a lot of people following us and a lot of cameras going off and movement inside the galleries,” he said. As if nobody else has to deal with such things.
There’s something larger going on with Woods’s performance in majors that has nothing to do with the specific course or conditions at Oak Hill. Analyst Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press points out that only one of Woods’s 14 major rounds so far this year has been in the 60s.
A week ago Wood shot a 61 at Bridgestone and went on to a seven-shot victory. Does this mean he has become just a “flat track bully,” as one inventive tweeter put it, and can’t score anymore in the more difficult and exacting setups of majors? No. Anyone who saw him drive the 14th on Friday knows that. Whatever is going on with Woods is between the ears. Maybe it’s that he knows the clock is ticking on his personal chase of Jack Nicklaus’s 18 majors.
And maybe that’s what accounted for a different tone from Woods after Friday’s round. For once, there were no asides about bad breaks or poor conditions. There was just an honest assessment that was, strangely, as reassuring as anything Woods has said about himself in some time. If he wants to pursue this PGA, “I’m going to have to do my job and shoot a good round,” he said matter of factly. He added some welcome realism: “But also, then again, I’m so far back that if the leaders go ahead and run off with it and shoot a low one tomorrow, I’m going to be pretty far behind. I have got to do my job tomorrow and go out there and post something in the mid to low 60s like some of the guys did today.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.