If Tiger Woods’ golf career were one of those old-school arcade games, he’d be the guy with the initials TW beside every one of the top 10 scores. And after a remarkable 22-year run dotted with extra lives and bonus levels, he’s now down to his last life.
Woods arrived in Northern Ireland this week for the Open Championship betraying an unfamiliar emotion: uncertainty.
“It's not quite as sharp as I'd like to have it right now,” Woods said of his game at Royal Portrush during his customary Tuesday media conference. “I still need to get the ball, the shape of the golf ball a little bit better than I am right now, especially with the weather coming in and the winds are going to be changing. I'm going to have to be able to cut the ball, draw the ball, hit at different heights and move it all around. [Tuesday] it was a good range session. I need another one [Wednesday]. And hopefully that will be enough to be ready.”
Hopefully? Hopefully? This is a Brooks Koepka-length drive from the Tiger of old, the guy who claimed he expected to win even when it was clear he’d have trouble walking 18 holes. This doesn’t seem like sneaky Woods gamesmanship; this is more like an honest assessment of his chances. Maybe he’s lowering expectations to sneak up on the field, the way college coaches call the upcoming cupcake on the schedule the most fearsome opponent in history. Or maybe, even though he pulled off one of the great comeback stories in history back in April, he’s just being realistic.
"Getting myself into position to win the Masters was … it took a lot out of me,” Woods conceded. “That golf course puts so much stress on the system … A lot of different scenarios happened [over the final six holes]. I was reading the leaderboard all the time trying to figure out what the number is going to be, who is on what hole. And it took quite a bit out of me.”
Woods then stepped away from the game for a full month, and proceeded to miss the cut at the PGA Championship. He hasn’t played at all since an unspectacular run at the U.S. Open, and he’s played exactly one non-major event since the Masters. According to Woods, that’s both by design and by necessity.
“Last year, I played too much; I played 17 events,” Woods said. “And a lot of it was trying to qualify for certain events, trying to get into the playoffs … So this year I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure that I don't play too much. I want to play here as long as I possibly can. And you have to understand, if I play a lot, I won't be out here that long.”
So what are Woods’ chances to win this week? Not great, but better than you might think.
Woods hadn’t played Royal Portrush before showing up this week, but that’s not necessarily disqualifying; outside of Rory McIlroy, who snared the course record of 61 when he was only 16, nobody’s got a whole lot of edge here. Plus, as Woods himself notes, the Open has a history of welcoming old guys.
“The great thing is playing in an Open Championship, you can [play well even old],” Woods said. “Look what Tom [Watson] did at Turnberry (finishing second in 2009 at 59), what Greg [Norman] did at Birkdale (finishing T3 in 2008 at 53). The golf course is fast enough, even if you don't have the speed to carry the ball 20 yards anymore, you can still run the ball quite a bit out there. You just have to navigate the bunkers and navigate around the golf course.”
Woods tees off at 10:10 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, and we’ll see what happens from there. No matter what, he’s going to stretch out that last life as long as he can.
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