The angry swipe of the golf club said it all. When he missed his approach to the 17th green in the second round of the Open Championship on Friday, ending the last sliver of hope of making the cut, Tiger Woods let loose his vexation in demonstrative fashion, spinning around and giving the tall fescue a good backhand slash.
That gesture revealed his building level of frustration over two days at Royal Portrush. It also underscored how hard he was trying to the end.
His back may be hurting – and to what extent only he will ever know – but his competitive spirit is intact. The conundrum of how he can make allowances for the former without having to temper the latter will be, perhaps, the supreme challenge of his career for as long as he can extend it.
That’s the internal skirmish Woods confronted for two days on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush as he sought solutions to play Major-championship-level golf with major physical limitations. It was a case study in how difficult it will be.
Woods was clearly a better and more limber player on Friday, finishing with a one-under par 70 despite bogeys on the last two holes after opening the championship with a 78, his highest first-round score in 21 Open appearances. His six-over 148 total resulted in his second missed cut of the year and his third in the championship he has won three times.
Only once before has he missed the cut in multiple Majors in a season. That came in 2015, when he was dismissed early from the year’s final three – a period he calls “some of the lowest times of my life”. It’s hard to not argue, though, that his 2019 Major season, the second in his remarkable comeback after spinal-fusion surgery, was a success with his titanic triumph in the Masters, which ended a drought of 11 years and gave him his 15th professional Major title.
He made a point of saying there is no comparison between this year and that one. “This is just me not playing well and not scoring well, and it adds up to high scores.”
A single factor explains plenty about how Woods was so successful at the Masters but struggled at the year’s other three Majors. One word: weather. It’s no coincidence that he was a non-factor in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, the US Open at Pebble Beach (where he salvaged T-21 with a final-round 69) and here where cool, damp conditions did his back no favours. Meanwhile, it was warm and somewhat muggy at the Masters. And in his only PGA Tour start since then, the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, he finished T-9 amid temperatures that hovered near or above 30 all week.
Golf acumen largely got Woods through Friday’s second round at Portrush. With some slight adjustments, he was able to go hard after a few tee shots and drove past his younger playing partners, Patrick Reed and Matt Wallace, on a few occasions after watching them blast drives well beyond his on Thursday.
“I just torqued my setup differently, just tried to make some minor changes, swing-wise,” Woods, 43, said. “Because, let’s be honest, I don’t have the flexibility I used to have, and never will. So I’m going to have to make those adaptations.
“If you look at what Hogan did with his setup, it looked not square at all, but he was able to flush it. So, I have to make certain adaptations on certain things, and with the cooler temperatures I was able to do that.”
He still battled a pull on many full shots, and it cost him on the par 5s, which he played collectively in two-over par.
The crusher to Friday’s round once again was the par-5 seventh hole, where he arrived at two-under par on the day after snaking in a 25-foot birdie putt at the par-3 sixth. A big drive in the fairway left him well within range of reaching the green with a fairway wood. But he pulled it into the high rough, though hole high. He couldn’t gouge his third onto the green, and he left his fourth 15 feet short. He bogeyed it for the second time.
“I had a chance to get it back to even-par for the tournament,” he said. “I didn’t handle the par 5s well. I was in perfect condition all three of them. If I handled those par 5s well, I would be right there.”
Attribute at least part of his struggles to a bit of rust, which he undoubtedly will have to contend with on many more occasions as he paces himself and gives his back the requisite recuperation time. That’s why he mentioned on Thursday that he had to be realistic about his expectations.
How can he feel sharp when he’s trying to make sure he feels well?
“I just have to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said in regards to his approach, which has limited him thus far to 10 starts this year. “I’ve gotten so much stronger over the past year working with my physios and trying to get my body organised so that I can play at a high level. It panned out; I won a Major championship this year.”
His timing was exquisite at Augusta. He found something in his swing that held up, and his putting came around two days before the Masters began. Even he knows that it’s folly to believe he could keep that up.
“It’s just a matter of being consistent,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you’re not going to be as consistent as you were at 23. I’m going to have my hot weeks. I’m going to be there in contention with a chance to win, and I will win tournaments. But there are times when I’m just not going to be there. And that wasn’t the case 20-some odd years ago. I had a different body, and I was able to be a little bit more consistent.”
Who knows what the rest of the year holds, let alone the years to come.
Even with his paucity of competitive play the past three months, he said he needs more time off. His intention is to play in all three FedEx Cup Playoff events starting with the Northern Trust on August 8 at Liberty National in New York. He has committed to the inaugural Zo Zo Championship in Japan in late October. He will captain the US Presidents Cup team in December in Melbourne, though it remains to be seen if he will serve as a playing captain.
One thing seems certain: he’ll continue trying. He’s too competitive to not try. He is one victory shy of Sam Snead’s record of 82 US PGA Tour wins. He is three shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional Major titles.
However, there is trying and there is doing. And though he might have the will to keep grinding, his body might not give him a way.