ST. LOUIS — Tiger Woods spent the day before the PGA Championship in an ice bath, and when you asked him where he was sore, he said, “Everywhere.” He talked so much like the creaking old man of the game that it was no wonder he found himself behind at Bellerive Country Club as soon as he got started, fighting to keep up with a bunch of young players who swung their golf clubs as if they came with accelerators.
It wasn’t just Rickie Fowler laying down that 5-under-par 65 before lunch, saying the idea was to “kind of get out and set a mark if you can.” Everyone seemed to start fast at par-70 Bellerive compared to Woods, who, starting his round on No. 10, bogeyed his first hole and then hit into a dank pond on his second for a double bogey. After that, Woods’s opening round in the PGA was an exercise in jogging endurance, a matter of finding his way back to even par and not letting the field run away without him.
“I was able to grind out a score today,” he said. “It kept me in the golf tournament. I could have easily gone the other way, being 3 over through two. A lot of things could happen. Not a lot of them were positive, but I hung in there and turned it around.”
It’s not like Woods is all that old and slow. He’s 42, and he has had four back surgeries, sure. He is still ginger and doesn’t quite have the speed and flexibility that he once did, and he’s still trying to recover his stamina. He’s playing in his 14th tournament this season, and this is the first time since 2015 that he has appeared in all four majors. Which is why he practiced only lightly and spent much of Wednesday in a tub soaking.
“I needed that day off,” he said. “Yesterday I spent a few times in the ice bath just trying to get some inflammation down and just trying to get ready for the rest of the week.”
But there is something mental going on, too. How else to explain Woods’s penchant for poor starts in opening rounds, especially in majors? At the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in June, he triple-bogeyed his first hole and never really recovered. These poor starts have nothing to do with age or freshness. Rather, they seem to have more to do with the pressure he feels to keep up with the scoring, the clubhead speed and the sheer precocity of today’s game. Take the threesome Woods played in Thursday: There was Justin Thomas, already a defending PGA champion at 25, who shot a 69, and Rory McIlroy, struggling not to feel like a has-been at the age of 29, also with a round of even par.
Maybe Woods ought to quit letting these kids suck him into the grand old man role. Maybe it’s not helping him. Thomas has made a big point of the fact that he was just 7 years old at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he watched Woods famously finger-point a putt into the final hole on his way to beating Bob May in a playoff.
“It just got me motivated, being on that range and seeing those guys, I remember,” Thomas said. “It’s just like, ‘Man, I want to do this,’ even at 7 years old. Again, I don’t remember the specific thoughts, or I’m sure nothing really too intelligent was going on in my head, but I do know that I was — I recognized enough that I wanted to do that just from watching because of how cool it was.”
At the Champions Dinner the other night, Thomas asked Woods to make a few remarks about coming full circle. Woods obligingly talked about how at Valhalla he played with Jack Nicklaus in his last PGA, and how Nicklaus told him in turn about having played with Gene Sarazen in his last PGA. It was a nice bracket, Woods said.
“It’s interesting what this game of golf can do, how we basically last for so many different generations,” Woods mused. “. . . So, kind of trying to tie in Gene Sarazen, Jack and little J.T. there, and now he’s PGA champion for the last year, 17 years later. It’s pretty neat.”
But perhaps Woods needs to quit reminiscing so much and telling stories to the kids ’round the campfire. He’s up against players who are looking strictly forward, who are zeroed in and hungry to make this their own moment. Thomas may look like a sweet prep school boy, with his thin chest in a white polo shirt, but he has already won nine times since just 2015. As for Fowler, he has had three rounds of 65 or better in the majors this year and is clearly on the cusp of breaking through to win his first big title.
“I don’t have to play special to win,” Fowler said. “Like I said, wear out fairway, wear out greens, and keep it as stress-free as possible and keep picking apart this golf course.”
These guys aren’t thinking past, or future. They aren’t thinking about Gene Sarazen and full circles. They are purely in the now, and Woods needs to get in the now with them, if he’s going to keep up on a golf course that promises low scoring. You get the sense that Woods has been managing himself and his game a little too carefully.
“You know, the main thing about major championships is to make sure you have enough energy,” he said. “This is a long run. These are marathons. These are four long days. They’re slow rounds. They’re not quick. Certainly not under these conditions.”
There is plenty of good golf in Woods by the measure of any era: He can still register clubhead speed in the neighborhood of 120 mph. And don’t forget: He has gone from unranked to 51st in the world in the space of just seven months. There is nothing slow about that.
“As I said last week, I’m trending,” he joked. He’s still got lots of gas. But he needs to hit it or be left behind.