Tiger Woods holed an 87-foot putt Thursday at the Zozo Championship. Not eight-foot. Not seven-foot. Eighty-seven feet of curling magnificence, a brilliant shot that brought a weary smile to Woods’ face and would have brought a gallery to its feet, had there been one.
Here, see for yourself:
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 22, 2020
I lead off with this bit of magic because, well, my mom always told me to say something nice. Because what’s about to follow is, for Tiger Woods’ Masters hopes, not so nice.
Like fellow 2019 champions such as the UVA men’s basketball team, the St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Raptors, Woods has held onto the title of defending champion — in his case, at the Masters — longer than anyone ever before him. Woods’ victory at Augusta back in April 2019 marked one of the most impressive comebacks in sports history, an 11-year climb through scandal, injury and depression.
The question now is whether Woods’ 15th major marked a new normal, or one last mountaintop.
Woods won the first event of the 2019-20 season — this same Zozo Championship, held last year in Japan — but since then, his results have looked less like the tiny numbers of yore and more like locker combinations.
In the last calendar year — not counting The Match 2.0 and The Presidents Cup — Woods has posted finishes of T9, 68, T40, T37, T58 and T51, capping it with a missed cut at last month’s U.S. Open.
He didn’t post enough rounds in the 2019-20 season to qualify for official ranking, but we can extrapolate. His driving distance of 299.4 would have tied for 76th with Shane Lowry, and is 45 yards behind Bryson DeChambeau’s mark to date this season. (That’s half a football field on every drive.) He hit greens in regulation at a 64.88 percent clip, which would rank him 156th. His scoring average of 70.257 per round is only 31st. He fell from a high of sixth in the Official World Golf Rankings to 28th this week.
And hey, speaking of this week: Woods teed it up at Sherwood Country Club, a course where he’s won five times. That’s a touch off his record of eight at Bay Hill, Firestone and Torrey Pines but a nice bit of familiarity all the same.
It didn’t help. Woods set a dubious personal record Thursday, carding bogey or worse on three par 5s in the same round for the first time in his career. Worse, he did it in his first seven of Sherwood’s long, generous holes. He ended the round four over with a 76, his worst round ever at Sherwood, an incredible 12 strokes behind leader Sebastian Munoz and just one stroke ahead of DFL.
This isn’t the way Woods wants to roll into Augusta. No matter how well he knows the course, you can’t outwit your own wayward drives, you can’t strategize your way around tentative approaches. At this point in 2019, Woods was coming off a run of five tournaments in which he’d finished no worse than T30, with two top-10 finishes (including the Dell Match Play). It’s safe to say he’s not exactly riding a similar wave right now.
Good news, if you’re looking for it: Woods has looked strong at several times this year, albeit in low-pressure events like The Match with Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, or this week’s pro-am. So it’s not like he doesn’t have the game within him; it’s just a matter of finding it at the right time.
Woods appeared to recapture some of that magic Friday, rebounding to shoot -6 during the second round of the event. Woods birdied five of his first nine holes, with just one bogey, coming on the third hole. He performed well on the back nine, hitting three more birdies against one bogey. With the performance, Woods moved to -2 at the event.
That’s still not good enough to move Woods into contention, but the 10-shot turnaround for Woods matches a career-best.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 24, 2020
“The whole idea is to be ready in a few weeks and whether or not that’s playing one more event, whether that’s Houston [at the upcoming Shell Open] or just playing here at Zozo, just making sure that I’m ready for Augusta,” Woods said earlier in the week.
Plus, let’s be honest: with all due respect to the many tournaments up and down the PGA Tour, it’s not like Woods seriously cares about anything outside of more majors. He can use events like this as glorified practice rounds with a paycheck. The Zozo Championship is a no-cut event, so Woods will have three more rounds to figure out what’s going sideways in his game and try to set himself up for Augusta in three weeks.
When reckoning with the late-career exploits of athletes for whom sundown is coming — icons like Woods, Brady, or Serena Williams — an old Toby Keith tune comes to mind. Paraphrasing: they may not be as good as they once were, but they can be as good once as they ever were. For Woods, the big question now is whether that “once” still lies ahead … or if it was back in April 2019.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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