The worst words you can say to any golfer are, “Tell me about your round.”
’Cause you’ll get told.
But just this once, indulge me. Let me tell you about my round yesterday. I haven’t played in a few months. Golf sure is easy to forget. I drove into the rough five times and hit irons into the weeds and the sand. I yanked one wedge shot far left, then missed the next one far right. I completely missed the hole on a four-foot putt. I tried to putt from off the green but left it 20 feet short. Then I tried it again and left it 15 feet short. I hope nobody was watching. I chunked a chip; I could’ve kicked it better. I missed three makeable putts “on the amateur side” — the low side where, unless gravity is repealed, you have no chance. I left a 10-foot putt short. If I keep playing like this, I may quit golf. So thanks for listening.
Now, let’s talk about Tiger Woods.
Actually, we’ve already been. That wasn’t my round; it was Woods’s round at Congressional Country Club on Thursday in his first round back on the PGA Tour after having back surgery. He made every hacker’s heart swell with pride. We often take a winter off between golf seasons. What chance do we have when we take out the demon sticks again? Woods had surgery three months ago . Until he birdied his 16th and 17th holes of the day to shoot 74, he looked like us (except with muscles).
Woods played with 20-year-old phenom Jordan Speith, who tied for second at the Masters in April, and Jason Day, who has been runner-up in the U.S. Open twice.
“It was a great group. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a lot of each other on the front nine. We were all kind of looking to break 80,” said Woods, grinning sheepishly because all three sprayed their way to 4-over-par 39s on their first nine holes.
Because Woods’s mistakes were so basic — and hence almost comical and easily attributable to rust — his first day back on Tour was actually encouraging. The things he did wrong any decent golfer could iron out. Will he be able to fix them in time to make the cut in his own event Friday? That will be tougher because a score in the high 60s — but not the mid-60s — will probably be needed on a Congressional layout that may be playing tougher than it did during the rain-softened 2011 U.S. Open.
“The score is not really indicative of how I played,” Woods said. “I had four up-and-downs right there on 15 through 18 [his sixth-through-ninth holes] and didn’t make any of them. I had an easy pitch on No. 2. Didn’t get that up-and-down. Had a wedge in my hand on 3, and I jerk it in the bunker. I made so many little mistakes. So I played a lot better than the score indicated.”
His partner Day was more restrained, saying, “It’s tough to tell with Tiger. He was kind of rusty.” Actually, it’s not hard to tell with Woods. When he’s striping it, partners start tweets with “Played w TW, OMG!” But Woods certainly has most of his length back and is driving quite well already.
“Back’s great. No issues. No twinges. Felt fantastic,” Woods said. But he didn’t head to the range to work out those poor short-game shots. “I’ll just take it easy . . . get out of here . . . get treatment and ice.”
What’s best about Woods right now isn’t his game, not yet anyway, but merely his presence. Sports has few one-name charismatic greats whose actual feats equal or surpass their hype. LeBron James is wonderful, but he has two rings. Woods has 14 major titles and, for a very long time, will be seen as, at worst, the second-greatest golfer ever. Golf needs his A-game, but as this event shows, it also needs him at a simpler and lower level: in one piece and playing.
Big crowds follow him here, root for him. “Pretty shot, Tiger,” yelled one fan as Woods laced an iron within a yard of the fifth hole for a birdie. At the seventh and eighth holes, he also had three-footers for birdies after precision irons. Woods, now 38, likely won’t find his best form in just three weeks in time for the British Open. And it’s unreasonable to think he’ll ever be as great a player, for a sustained period, as he was in his first 11 pro seasons. Other than Ben Hogan, no golf immortal has done his best work at that age.
But Woods still has tons to offer the game, provided his much-battered body allows it. As he walked off the fourth hole and through the gallery, a teenager asked, “Can I have the ball, Tiger?” Woods walked on. “Worth a try,” the boy said.
Two steps further, another youngster said — not in a yell but in a normal direct voice, as you might speak to a playing partner — “Nice three.”
“Thanks, man,” Woods said, turning for an instant.
The first fan, meaning no harm, spoke to Woods as if he were a brand, a commodity or an opportunity. Woods himself cultivated that brand and, for many years, cashed in on sponsors who saw him as a gravy train opportunity. Woods, the brand, is still around, even if the image gleams less.
The second fan, perhaps, saw a great player trying to be great again but also saw a person who could use a friendly direct word of support rather than one more superstar yell of “Tiger.”
If his body and especially his back hold up — and this was just Day One — the “Thanks, man” Woods may show up more as the years pass. Golf, and those who aren’t ready for Woods’s final chapter just yet, prefer it.
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