TULSA — On a Tuesday in May in Oklahoma, Tiger Woods recollected a Monday in April at home in Florida, and that Monday did seem lousy.
“Monday, it was not fun,” he said, telling of ice baths and regrets.
Ahead of the 104th PGA Championship, Woods’s first return after his first return, golf’s still-biggest star spoke at length about his continued recovery, about his win at a shorter Southern Hills in 2007 and about his differences in viewpoint with Phil Mickelson on the subject of the PGA Tour and the proposed Saudi counterpart that has roiled things across recent months.
“Everyone around me was very happy and ecstatic that I got around all 72 holes,” Woods said. “I did not see it that way on Monday. I was a little ticked I didn’t putt well and felt like I was hitting it good enough and I wish I had the stamina. You know, it’s a normal, typical golfer, the what-ifs — ‘If I would have done this, if I would have done that, would have done this.’ But taking a step back and looking at the overall big picture of it, it was an accomplishment.”
He told of painful days of getting back to the rental house and going straight into ice baths, the whole construct “hard on all of us,” meaning the “team” he often praises. “But I’ve gotten stronger since then,” he said. “But still, it’s going to be sore and walking is a challenge. I can hit golf balls, but the challenge is walking.”
But: “It was one of those things, the thing that I was frustrated with is it deteriorated as the week went on,” he said. “I got more and more tired and more fatigued. I didn’t have the endurance that I wanted. I mean, I shouldn’t expect it because I didn’t earn it. I didn’t go out there, and I hadn’t done the work, but we were able to put in a little more work, and it’s going to get better as time goes on.”
He even got a little wistful: “And I know that [Augusta National] golf course, and I just — maybe next year will be different.”
From there, and from that, Woods, uncommonly hampered at 46, has moved along 36 more days on his path to whatever physical apex might be available to him given a back long rebellious and a leg now reassembled.
“I don’t know,” he said of his proximity to that ceiling. “That’s a great question. I don’t know. There’s going to be limitations. There’s a lot of hardware in [the right leg] and there’s going to be limitations to what I’m going to be able to do, but I’m going to get stronger. I don’t know how much that is or how much range of motion I’ll ever get back. But sure is a hell of a lot better than it was 12 months ago.”
He figures he already climbed the “Everest,” as he referred to Augusta National with its spiteful slopes, so that every course from here would get “flatter and flatter,” although Southern Hills itself grew from 7,131 yards back then to 7,556 now.
“He certainly hasn’t chosen two of the easiest walks in golf to come back to, Augusta and here,” said Rory McIlroy, himself a four-time major champion. “But, no, he’s stubborn, he’s determined. This is what he lives for. He lives for these major championships, and if he believes he can get around 18 holes, he believes he can win.”
Woods also reckons he had about “15 three-putts” on Saturday at Augusta, and he knows the practice regimen for fixing such things has to differ from the better days.
“Bending over, hitting a bunch of putts like I used to, that doesn’t happen, not with my back the way it is,” he said. “I have to pick my spots and do my work and get in and get out. I can do different sessions. I have a great complex in the backyard that I can do different times throughout the day and do like a 20-minute segment here, a 20-minute segment there, another 20-minute segment later in the evening. I can break it up and do it that way instead of putting for two or three hours in a row like I used to.”
He also told of “a lot of shadow swinging in front of mirrors” so as to minimize his intersections with impact.
Here, he returns to the site of major win No. 13 (of his 15), the 2007 PGA Championship he won by two shots after grabbing and keeping the lead with a 63 on Friday. He still thinks he can win here, which should surprise no one who has listened to him speak across the decades. And when reminiscing about 2007 and its end-of-time heat, he upheld the premise that really strange things affix themselves to the memory.
“It was obviously a very different golf course,” he said. “It was not cold that week [with the PGA in August in those days]. I remember playing behind [John Daly] the first day, which was awesome. It was, what, 109, I think, that day? And I asked J.D. how many waters he drank out there. He said, ‘No, I had 13 Diet Cokes.’ ”
He remembered “a lot of irons and, like, strange irons. You don’t normally hit a 6-iron off the tee on a par-4, and we did that week.” He sees “a lot more shot options, that’s for sure, and we are going to be tested around the greens a lot.”
He entertained questions without hesitation when it came to the delicate subject of the day, Mickelson’s absence here even as last year’s champion, owing to Mickelson’s reluctance to enter the storm of questions about his criticism of the PGA Tour in recent months.
Woods referred to when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer spearheaded a split from the PGA of America to form a players tour.
“I understand different viewpoints,” Woods said, “but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There’s plenty of money out here. The tour is growing. But it’s just like any other sport. ... You have to go out there and earn it.”