PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Tiger Woods all but told us this would happen. Just the other day, he said that the Masters had taken a ton out of him, that his game was not particularly sharp, and that he needed to shape his golf ball more convincingly than he had been.
Oh, and he also reminded us that his surgically altered, 43-year-old body does not move forcefully through the ball, or around the course, when the weather starts reminding him of his age.
But to see him almost stagger around Royal Portrush on Thursday while shooting a 7-over 78 in the first round of The Open, and then to hear him speak as candidly and alarmingly as he ever has about his physical state, was to understand that Woods appears to have crossed a threshold only three months after his most significant victory.
Welcome to the Old Tiger. Goodbye to the Tiger of old.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult,” Woods said of the process of winning. “I’m not 24 anymore. Life changes, life moves on. I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to. Standing on the range hitting balls for four, five hours. Go play 36. Come back and run four, five miles, then go to the gym. Those days are gone, OK? So I have to be realistic about my expectations and hopefully peaking at the right time. I peaked at Augusta well, and hopefully I can peak a few more times this year.”
Speaking haltingly in a post-round interview with reporters, almost as if it hurt to talk, Woods admitted he was in pain and that the pain prevented him from attempting or executing certain shots. “Just the way it is,” he said. “Just Father Time and some procedures I’ve had over the time. It’s just the way it’s going to be.”
In other words, Woods will be more of a cherry picker than a terminator across the rest of his career.
This doesn’t mean Woods is done winning majors. It doesn’t mean he can’t tie or break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. It doesn’t mean he won’t nail down the two victories needed to break Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82.
It only means he needs to be smart in managing his body and schedule, and then opportunistic when everything in his dialed-back game and diminished skill set happens to click once or twice every two or three years.
After missing the PGA Championship cut at Bethpage Black, site of one of his U.S. Open victories, and then finishing outside the top 20 at Pebble Beach, site of his greatest all-time performance, Woods showed again why he needs to remain committed to a strict pitch count from here to retirement. Sunday at the Masters made everyone forget the four back surgeries, including the spinal fusion, and Tiger’s own stated belief in 2017 that he was done as a competitive golfer.
Thursday at The Open delivered a cruel dose of reality. As it turned out, Northern Ireland was no country for old men. On his very first hole at Royal Portrush, after a great bunker shot negated a lousy tee shot, Woods surrendered to a sudden burst of wind and rain. He yanked his light vest over his head, walked across the green and handed it to caddie Joe LaCava, and slid into a long-sleeved gray pullover. Woods then made his par putt, pumped his right fist as the fans roared, and marched to the second tee.
It would be a small victory on a day of big-picture defeats.
Woods posted his worst opening-round score ever at The Open, and his third-worst in any round of any major. He went to bed a dozen strokes off J.B. Holmes‘ lead in the first Open to be played in Northern Ireland in 68 years. Woods’ only consolation was found on two of his friends’ scorecards.
Rory McIlroy, the tournament and hometown favorite, hit a woman (and her phone) with an opening tee shot that ended up out of bounds, made a quadruple bogey, and shot 79. David Duval, former world No. 1, shot 91 and made a 14 on the par-5 seventh by staging a tragicomedy of errors that made Jean van de Velde’s 1999 masterpiece look boring in comparison.
But McIlroy hasn’t won a major in five years, and Duval hasn’t won one (his only one) in 18. Woods ended an 11-year drought by winning his 15th in April, after nearly winning The Open and the PGA Championship the previous summer and winning the Tour Championship in September, breathing life into the possibility he might revive the dominance of his prime.
Just as it didn’t happen at Bethpage and Pebble, it didn’t happen at Portrush. Woods started coming undone on the drivable par-4 fifth, a birdie hole he turned into a bogey hole with a lousy approach and putt. He doubled the next hole, a par-3, by chipping from one greenside swale to another, and then bogeyed the following par-5. On the ninth, facing a nasty sidehill lie in the left rough, Woods took a huge cut on a ball that went nowhere and left him wincing like he had winced on the first tee. That bogey gave Tiger a 41 at the turn, and buried him nine shots off the lead. His body language matched his position on the board.
When Woods made his first and only birdie at the 15th, he used humor to ease his misery. Tiger lifted his head and extended his arms wide in mock disbelief. He licked his right index finger, and then raised it and jabbed it downward in count-it form.
Woods later said that his warm-up on the range was troubling, that his body wasn’t moving on the course, that he hit everything off the heel of his club. He conceded he tried and failed to piece together a swing that would salvage the round.
No, that fifth green jacket didn’t undo the long-term damage to his back. Away from the course, Woods said he feels sore — really, really sore — after picking up his kids from school or after taking them to and from soccer practice. But it’s easier to manage the pain as a father than as a world-class athlete.
“These guys are too good,” Woods said. “There are too many guys that are playing well, and I’m just not one of them.”
Woods didn’t play between Pebble and Portrush, just like he didn’t play between Augusta and Bethpage. He beat up his own body entering too many tournaments last year, and now he is limiting himself in an attempt to prolong his career.
Woods can win another Masters, if only on muscle memory. He can win another Open, too. There’s a reason Woods brought up a couple of golden oldies in his pre-tournament news conference. He brought up 59-year-old Tom Watson’s near-miss at Turnberry in 2009, and 53-year-old Greg Norman‘s near-miss at Royal Birkdale (2008) as examples of how the bouncy quirks of links golf can neutralize youth, power and athleticism and give the graybeards a credible chance to win.
But Tiger won’t be winning this Open. When last seen Thursday night, he was heading straight into treatment for everything that ails him.
Woods was also heading into the last chapter of his incomparable career. The pain has reduced him to the greatest cherry picker and opportunist of all time.