The last time Tiger Woods played a tournament at Harding Park, the rollicking place was so loud he said he felt “half deaf.”
“Came to Bethpage and played awful, and felt like, what, Brooks [Koepka] beat me by like 30 shots in two days,” Woods said Tuesday, recalling his ninth missed cut in 76 majors as a pro. “My game is better than it was going into that PGA and hopefully I can put it together this week.”
His game might be showing more life, but misty Harding Park is eerily quiet amid the pandemic. There are no spectators, with a mere fraction of the typical media contingent.
“It's different than most of the times when you go from green-to-tee, people yelling or trying to touch you. That part is different,” he said. “As far as energy while I'm competing and playing, no, that's the same. I'm pretty intense when I play and pretty into what I'm doing.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Woods has a chance to become the first golfer to win a major in each of four decades. He won at least one in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.
To do so again, he’ll have to snap a recent trend. In his last three, he’s missed the cut twice and been over par in half of his eight rounds.
“There's probably only been, what, two — maybe three times where I knew that all I had to do was keep my heartbeat going and I was going to win the tournament,” he said. “In '97, I felt pretty good at Augusta and then Pebble Beach in 2000, and then obviously at St. Andrews the same year.”
Woods is playing in his second tournament since the Genesis Invitational in February at Riviera. Last month, he finished tied for 40th at the Memorial.
“I feel good,” he said. “Obviously I haven't played much competitively, but I've been playing a lot at home. So I've been getting plenty of reps that way. Just trying to get my way back into this part of the season. This is what I've been gearing up for.”
Harding Park is new to many in this field. The last official stroke-play PGA Tour event here was the WGC-American Express in 2005, when Woods edged John Daly in a two-hole playoff. The place was rocking.
“When we were taking the carts back to the tee, I couldn’t hear anything,” Woods told reporters at the time. “In my left ear, I'm half deaf, people whistling and screaming, and then my right ear, I'm half deaf. It was electric, it was loud, people were really into it.”
Now, the sounds of silence.
“It's still a major championship,” he said. “It's still the best players in the world. We all understand that going into it, so there's going to be plenty of energy from the competitive side… Hopefully, I can put myself in a position where I can be in that position where I can feel what it feels like to have no fans and also coming down the stretch with a chance to win.”
Jon Rahm’s stint atop golf lasted all of two weeks. He was bumped out of the World No. 1 spot after Justin Thomas won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational on Sunday.
That brief reign, Rahm said, is a sign of these ultra-competitive times.
“I think we are in an era right now where it's going to be hard to have somebody distance themselves,” Rahm said.
“When you have so many great players playing who go out at the same time, at any given point for two or three months, one of us can get hot and take the No. 1 spot. I think we might be entering an era where we bounce back and forth. Not that, hopefully that could still be the case where one of us, you know, plays well for a while and stays in the No. 1 spot for a while.”
Rahm compared the jockeying in golf to the rarefied air of elite in tennis.
“You have Rafa [Nadal], [Novak] Djokovic and [Roger] Federer who are competing at the same time,” he said. “Who is No. 1, you don't know, depends on who plays better that year.
“It's going to be hard to have a Tiger-esque case right now because there's so many players with so much talent and are really, really good. It could be a situation where we are going back and forth, and hopefully I'm the one that stays up there for awhile, but it's going to take a lot of good play.”
By the numbers
For Koepka, sweeping aside the field all boils down to a math problem.
“The way the golf course sets up eliminates pretty much half the guys, and then from there, you know, half of those guys probably won't play well,” he said. “Then from there, I feel like mentally I can beat them, the other half, so you've probably got 10 guys. That's the way I see it. If I can do what I'm supposed to, then, yeah, I should.”