PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – As Tiger Woods stepped to the microphone after a frustrating third round, one that torpedoed any chances of a fourth U.S. Open title on an overcast and chilly afternoon at Pebble Beach, he offered a surprising bit of candor.
When it comes to health matters, Woods usually likes to keep things close to the vest. He built a legendary intimidation factor in part on the lack of a perceived weakness, and that tendency carried over even as his body began to break down years ago. But this time, with the kinesiology tape peeking out from beneath his gray sweater, Woods took off his cap, wiped his brow on both sleeves and opened up.
“When it’s cold like this, everything is achy. It’s just part of the deal,” Woods said. “It’s been like that for years.”
The chase for a 16th major has not gone as planned. Woods was clearly ailing at last month’s PGA Championship, dealing with an undisclosed illness that offered another example of his penchant for keeping disclosed details to a minimum when it comes to his health. While he seemed in better spirits this time, returning to the site of his most dominant victory, the margin for error in a USGA setup is razor-thin. Woods didn’t have it this week, saving his best golf for a back-nine rally Sunday when he was as far off the lead as his closest pursuers were 19 years ago.
That was another round where the KT was visible along his neck, this time black to match his final-round color scheme. It was there last summer at Carnoustie, when he finished in a tie for sixth, and his neck was cited as the reason he skipped the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
Even with a fused back allowing him to return to a competitive level, at age 43, Woods is never going to be fully healthy. It’s simply a matter of managing various degrees of discomfort.
“My back impacts every shot I play. It’s just part of the deal,” Woods said. “Let me put it this way, I feel every shot I hit. I think that’s always going to be the case from here going forward.”
It’s a sobering take from a man who knows his body better than any fan with WebMD at the ready. The chances that Woods’ body and game align at a major will be slim moving forward, especially when the temps remain stuck in the 50s as they have been at each of the last two events and could again next month.
But knowing that he has a finite amount of arrows in the quiver should also make his Masters win in April seem all the more remarkable in hindsight.
“It was impressive anyway, no matter how he played here or at Bethpage. The colder weather, I think it affects a lot of guys,” said Marc Leishman, who played with Woods in the final round. “But no matter how he plays from here, that Masters win was impressive.”
Woods’ body was surely an obstacle at Augusta, when he chased down Francesco Molinari and held off Brooks Koepka. Just look at the context clues: he dealt with nagging issues last summer, and again during a stop-and-start Genesis Open in February, before opting out of Bay Hill. With the Masters final round pushed up because of expected weather, you could almost sense him doing the mental math on exactly how early he’d need to wake in order to give his body a chance to function properly.
And yet despite it all, knowing that chances to win after 54 holes won’t grow on trees from this point forward, he steeled his nerves and slipped into a green jacket. The fact that he then skipped the Wells Fargo Championship showed how much the Masters took out of him, both physically and emotionally.
So moving forward, Woods will likely speak with optimism before every major, just as he did at Bethpage before cobbling together a forgettable result. But the raw, physical truths won’t go away. Woods is at a point where every swing, every start comes at a cost – and it’s been that way for a while.
“The forces have to go somewhere,” Woods said. “And if they’re not in the lower back, they’re in the neck. And if they’re not in the neck, they’re in the mid-back, and if not, they go to the knee. You name it.”
Granted, the margin for error and level of familiarity Woods enjoyed at the Masters is unparalleled at the other three majors. The old feels didn’t count for much at either Bethpage or Pebble Beach, two places he had won before, and he’ll now face his biggest unknown with Royal Portrush, a course he’s never played. But as was the case with Jack Nicklaus, the magic amid the azaleas still seems to have a tangible impact each spring.
“If there was any major he was going to win, it was going to be Augusta. He’s just so good around there,” Jason Day said at Pebble Beach. “You don’t really need to hit a lot of drivers around that golf course. Even still here, but at the U.S. Open you’ve got to keep it straight down the middle.”
After closing out his final round and leaving the Monterey Peninsula with a deceptively respectable T-21 finish, Woods was peppered with questions about his upcoming schedule. Attempts to subtly dodge the topic didn’t do the trick, so Woods again spoke with unusual candor and laid out the hard truth: he won’t play competitively in the month leading up to The Open.
“It’s just trying to wind down from the championship, as well as my lifts and getting back into it,” Woods said. “And I know that Florida will not be the same temperature as Northern Ireland.”
Wind down. Gear up. Adjust for climate. Anticipate future aches and pains. It’s all part of the process now, one that has produced a lean-as-possible schedule in the wake of his Masters victory and one that will likely lead to far more misses than hits when it comes to contending on a major stage.
But it’s also a set of circumstances that should make it easier to appreciate the moment it all came together in April, when Woods put all the obstacles in his way on his aching back and still came out on top.