ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Where's Tiger?
If you've followed a major golf tournament in the last 15 years, you've asked that question. You've asked it of a family member over the phone, of a buddy at a wedding, of a stranger at a barbeque. You may have even tried to ask Siri.
For so long the answer came quickly, because Tiger Woods was right there at the top of the leaderboard. "He's running away with it," was a likely response. "He's two back." "He's lurking." "He's on the prowl."
On Saturday, while the leaders of the PGA Championship exited the clubhouse into the warm sunshine of the practice green before their rounds, Tiger Woods was standing in a bunker on the 18th hole.
Fans lined the fairways, as they always do for Woods, yet this was a quiet mob. There were a smattering of "Go Tiger!" shouts, but otherwise it was the polite clapping every pro gets. The crowd groaned when Woods landed in the sand, and groaned again when his bunker shot landed short of the green. All the eyes were on the icon, but the icon didn't have that look in his eyes.
Woods is 4-over for the tournament, more than likely too far back to contend for his 15th major on Sunday. Another year is gone, and Woods is another year older. He's still four major victories behind Nicklaus. If he goes another year without a major championship, he'll be on the doorstep of age 40 and behind Nicklaus' pace.
He was very honest after his round. There were no head-scratching comments about how he played great despite his unimpressive score – a 3-over 73. "I didn't play very well today," Woods said. "I didn't start out very good, I didn't finish very good.
"I didn't hit it well enough and I didn't make enough putts."
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Woods gave some insight on his game, saying he worked Friday night with swing coach Sean Foley on his takeaways. He admitted that part of his swing hasn't been reliable, and that's affected everything. He admitted he was blocking his putts out to the right today. He wasn't sure why.
"It just wasn't quite right."
From one important perspective, Woods is on his way back to where he was before. He's won five times this year on Tour, which is not just good but remarkable. Very few golfers have won that many events in one year, let alone their careers. Woods is the No. 1 golfer in the world. And even though most casual fans see 2013 as just another empty year for Woods, there are signs of a continued comeback.
Woods had two top-10 finishes in majors this season – at the Masters and at the British Open. The last time that happened was in 2010. Even at the height of his career, he had forgettable majors. In 1997, the year he broke through and won the Masters, he finished out of the top 10 in the remaining three majors. The same thing happened when he won the Masters in 2001. In 2003 and 2004, he finished out of the top 10 in three of four majors. This year actually compares favorably to those two. It's true: Woods had more top-10 finishes in majors in 2013 than he did in either 2003 or 2004.
The problem is, he was in his mid-20s back then and had all the time in the world to rack up first-place finishes. Now he's 37, looking ahead at 40 and back at multiple major knee surgeries.
The real question is, "Where's the old Tiger?" You know, the one that seemed to have an epic shot followed by a fist pump every time he was shown on TV. On Saturdays and Sundays at majors, the pressure always brought out the best in him. He raised expectations and flourished under the weight of them. He had shots that we can close our eyes and still see; he made putts none of us could ever make if we had 25 tries. This year, the most memorable thing that happened to Woods in a major was when he took a controversial drop at the Masters.
Tiger Woods is still around and still a force. Don't let the major-less year fool you into thinking he's cratering. There is clear progress, even this season, and it will only take one major victory to spin all the naysaying into frenzied hype and sincere belief.
But Tiger used to connote inevitability. He used to elicit the certainty of something about to happen, rather than the potential of something that might happen. When people used to ask where he was, the answer was expected rather than hoped for.
On Sunday, another major championship Sunday, the question will hardly be asked at all.
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