Holy drudgery. The golfing trinity of Padraig Harrington, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods took five sweaty hours just to reach the 18th tee during their second round at the PGA Championship. Paddy was playing to make the cut. Davis was playing to climb higher up the leader board. Tiger was playing for ... you'd have to be a mind reader to know what. Woods was already nine over par through 35 holes. One more hole and he'd be done. Certainly for the week. Possibly, on his home tour, for the year. It was Aug. 12.
The only thing left in his workweek was to play the final hole, shake hands with his playmates and address the reporter herd, and then he'd be free, if freedom is a concept Woods even knows anymore.
It had been clear for most of the afternoon—at least since his double bogey on the 12th, an easy par-5—that Tiger's midsummer return to golf after a three-month rest-and-rehab break would comprise only six rounds, four at the Bridgestone Invitational and two at the PGA. Not what the doctor, Sean Foley, Mark Steinberg, Tim Finchem or the marketing departments at Nike, CBS and FedEx had ordered. Not what Woods had wanted, either. He is discovering, painfully and at age 35, Mick's deep truth: You can't always get what you want.
Some of the things Sean and I are working on are starting to click and now I am starting to really understand what he's trying to get me to do.
—Woods on Aug. 2 in Akron, before the Bridgestone Invitational
Woods gives a mass group interview before every tournament and generally after every round he plays. He has 43 listed interviews for 2011 on the ASAP Sports website, a company that transcribes formal group press conferences at various sporting events, and eight of them are from August, when Woods played in Akron and Atlanta. During those sessions he seldom tells stories and rarely talks about himself in a personal way. His main thing is to report on the state of his game. The herd picks up the tea leaves and tries to read them. As Woods played his final hole at the PGA last week, he knew what was coming, another media session in which he would try to explain the inexplicable: Where does it go when it goes?
I was hitting proper shots out there.
—Woods on Aug. 4, after a first-round 68 at the Bridgestone
For last week's PGA the 18th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club was played as a 480-yard par-4 and was almost comically difficult. If you missed left, you were in a lake. If you missed right, you were in a trap. Most balls that finished in the Tifton 10 bermuda rough required a U.S. Open--style hack-out. The fairway was a rumor. The welcome mat to the thin green was a murky pond.
Woods, most atypically, had the honor at 18 on Friday, and he hit his three-wood into the right bunker. His swing has always featured a head dip, but now he's more of a head-dipper than ever before. If that's good or bad, only Sean Foley, Johnny Miller or Brandel Chamblee can say. Harrington followed Woods and smoked a three-wood down the middle. Love, after bogeys on 16 and 17, had the red ass (sorry, Mrs. Penta Love) and nutted a two-iron past both of them. Paddy knocked his second onto the green. Tiger thought Davis was away and waited for him to play first. In the meantime Tiger made repeated practice swings before descending into the sand, which he did with some care. (His legs have been through the wars of modern medicine.) He took a mighty swipe with a long iron. It was deeply impressive but not nearly enough. The pond swallowed up his swooshed ball.
I'm hitting the ball so much farther.
—Woods on Aug. 5, after a second-round 71 at the Bridgestone
I hit the ball so much straighter than I used to.
—Woods on Aug. 6, after a third-round 72 at the Bridgestone
With his friend Bryon Bell on his bag, and his own yardage book in his pocket, Tiger dropped a new ball in front of the pond. He made a beautiful pitch shot and holed a five-footer for a closing bogey. His rounds were 77 and 73, 10 over par, six over the cut line. He has played in 56 majors as a pro, won 14 of them and missed the cut in only three. He took off his hat and approached his two buddies, Paddy and Davis. He smiled briefly.
Woods and Love didn't talk much in the second round, but they did during the first. Woods asked Love, who will be next year's U.S. Ryder Cup captain, who his assistants will be. He asked Davis how his daughter, Lexie, an accomplished equestrienne, was doing. He asked several questions about Davis's son, Dru, a good junior golfer: "Is he taller than you? Can he hit it farther than you? Where's he looking to go?" (Yes, yes, possibly North Carolina.) Tiger wants to play on this year's Presidents Cup team. He wants to play on next year's Ryder Cup team. He wants his old life back.
Playing money games with my buddies, it's just not quite the same. Being out here and being forced to post a score, hit shots, that's a different deal.
—Woods on Aug. 7 after a closing 70 and 37th-place finish at the Bridgestone
As he walked to the scorer's hut at the end of his two-day PGA week, fans were calling out Tiger's name. He didn't acknowledge them. He seldom does. But then he did a rare thing. He flipped his game ball to a charming little girl standing along the rope, a girl maybe slightly younger than Tiger's daughter, Sam, who is four, two years older than Woods's son, Charlie. Tiger was in and out of the scorer's trailer in a minute.
I'm not down. I'm really angry right now.
—Woods last Thursday, after his 77 at the PGA
Woods did not leave the Atlanta Athletic Club angry, not that you could tell, anyway. He had to be confused, disappointed and weirded out. After all, for nearly all of his 15 years on Tour he could play in virtually any event he wanted. He 73'd his way out of that luxury. Tommy Gainey is in the FedEx Cup playoffs, but Woods is not. He said goodbye to the herd with this: "Now I'll have nothing to do but work on my game."
Maybe the answer to what ails him lies in those words. Or not. In the end, golf's not about words spoken. It's about numbers written. Woods has known that forever.
BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
OFF TRACK After returning from a three-month layoff, Woods's PGA Tour comeback lasted six rounds, during which he was 11 over par. He missed the cut at the PGA by six strokes.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
FINAL VERDICT A disappointed Woods found this silver lining: "Now I'll have nothing to do but work on my game."