Tiger Woods returned this week at the Memorial Tournament, and it was initially just as big a deal as when the PGA Tour itself came back last month.
But by the time Woods putted out Sunday afternoon, there were more questions than answers about what’s next for golf’s most dominant figure of all time.
“I would like to say that I’m going to win the event,” said Woods on Tuesday before the tournament — his first since finishing last at The Genesis Invitational in February and battling a wonky back through most of the springtime. “That’s my intent going into every event.”
After rounds of 71-76-71-76, Woods finished at 6-over for the week. At the time he finished Sunday after a rain delay of 45 minutes (Woods was in the greenside bunker of his final hole of the tournament when the horn blew), the leader Jon Rahm was at 13-under par.
“It was nice to get my feet wet and compete and play again,” was all Woods could say.
The last time we saw the 15-time major champion he was riding a cart in a rainstorm at his home club in Florida. Woods and Peyton Manning took down Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in The Match: Champions for Charity, in May – a fundraising event for COVID-19 relief. Woods didn’t miss a fairway that day and was clinical at a place he’s very familiar.
This week was supposed to be more of the same.
After skipping the Bay Hill Invitational (won eight times), The Players Championship (won twice) and with the Masters (won four times) postponed until fall, it just made sense for Woods to make his return at the Jack Nicklaus-hosted Memorial (won five times) especially since there were not going to be any fans this week. Woods joked pre-tournament that he doesn’t believe he’s ever played a tournament in front of no spectators and said he was waiting to see how the PGA Tour’s new normal was going to unfold before actually committing to an event.
But Woods couldn’t get anything going all week long, and there was even the infamous ‘Woods Wince’ at one point Friday, after a poor swing resulted in him grimacing on the tee. He said Friday his physical struggles began on the driving range during his warm-up – he “couldn’t quite turn back and I couldn’t quite clear,” he said.
In a jarring reply, he also said “more times than not” he’s not going to know what kind of day, physically, he’ll have on the course until he actually gets moving.
Woods managed to bounce back with a much more solid round Saturday before toughing out a 76 in the final round. The final score shouldn’t be looked into too much, Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava told reporters after the round. The course was pushed all the way to the edge Sunday, as Jack Nicklaus and his team will be undergoing a massive renovation starting this week.
“Today was better than the week,” said LaCava. “He hit good quality shots, rolled it pretty well I thought. Didn’t get a whole lot out of the round. I don’t always look at the final score; I was looking at how he was feeling, and I thought he was moving pretty good and hit it pretty well.”
“These were some of the more difficult conditions I’ve played in a long time,” added Woods, who admitted his putting was the big struggle this week.
“Friday was a bit off physically, but overall for my first week back, it was a lot of positives.”
Woods has proven, even in his mid-40s, that when he’s on (see: the Masters, the ZOZO Championship, and the Presidents Cup in 2019) he’s still got it. In fact, he’s really got it. But otherwise he’s out there just trying to survive. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen day in and day out.
So now what?
Woods was asked (sort of) about his upcoming schedule and only confirmed he “needs more reps” before playing the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in California, the first major on the PGA Tour’s schedule this season.
There was no specific follow-up about whether Woods would play the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational the week before the PGA, but if we see Woods again before the major, it’ll be in Memphis.
It’s not unexpected that Woods’ schedule will be significantly reduced now and moving forward (even before COVID-19 it was starting to slim down), but when he does show up to play, which Woods will we see?
“Aging is not fun. Early on in my career I thought it was fantastic because I was getting better and better and better, and now I’m just trying to hold on,” said Woods on Friday, to a chorus of single-tear emojis on Twitter.
Following an aging Woods is a wild ride. Holding on is all you can do.