Tiger Woods, occasional golfer, is the smart plan moving forward

John Feinstein
Golf Digest

The hint was clearly there, less than an hour after Tiger Woods donned his fifth green jacket a little more than two weeks ago. “I don’t mind telling you I’m really sore,” Woods said during his post-Masters press conference. “I definitely won’t be touching a golf club tomorrow.”

Now we know just how serious he was—and how sore. Woods has decided not to play in a golf tournament between majors—choosing to use the four weeks between the Masters and the PGA Championship to rest and, presumably, practice, although based on what we saw at Augusta National, the rest is probably more important than the practice.

Some people may be surprised by Woods’ decision not to tee it up at Quail Hollow this week for the Wells Fargo Championship. It is the logical place for him to play before competing at Bethpage Black for a number of reasons.

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To begin with, he’s had two weeks off since the Masters, and in the rhythm of a golf season, most players don’t like to take more than two or three weeks off at any one time. Plus, Woods has only occasionally played the week leading into a major in the past (it seems highly unlikely he’ll do that this year given the tournament preceding the PGA, the AT&T Byron Nelson, is at a course, Trinity Forest in Dallas, Woods has never played). He did play the week prior a couple of times ahead of the PGA when the major was played in August, first to fulfill a corporate obligation to one of his former sponsors (Buick) and then when the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was played at Firestone Country Club, a place where he won eight times.

What’s more, Woods, like many of his fellow pros, likes to play at Quail Hollow. To say that it is a perfect warm-up for the PGA is almost redundant given that it hosted the PGA two years ago. It is, quite literally, a PGA-like setup.

But Woods is 43—an old 43 at that, given all the various surgeries he’s been through. He’s proven in the past that he doesn’t have to play leading into a major. In fact, his final major title prior to the recent Masters came at the 2008 U.S. Open. After finishing second in the Masters that year, he didn’t play between Augusta National and Torrey Pines after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. And in 2010, after a more than four-month layoff brought on by the scandal that ended his marriage and changed his public profile forever, Woods finished T-4 at the Masters.

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Of course that was a much younger Woods, although not necessarily a healthier one. His back has held up well since his last surgery in 2017, and it’s pretty clear this decision is more about fatigue and needed rest than any injury concerns.

Older athletes, especially the best ones, learn to adjust to the messages their bodies send them as they age. Pitchers not only learn to get hitters out without the blazing fastball they once used to dominate, but also go on stricter pitch and innings counts. Long gone are the days when star pitchers routinely pitched 300 innings in a season. Nowadays, the most expensive arms are saved and rested.

In 2018, no major league pitcher threw more than two complete games—there were eight who did so. In all, there were 34 complete games thrown by pitchers for the season. Fifty years earlier, Denny McLain and Bob Gibson each threw—wait for it—28 complete games. That reflects a change in the sport, but also in the recognition that rest is important.

The same is true in basketball, where older NBA players routinely sit out regular-season games in order to be rested for the playoffs. NFL coaches bench key players late in the regular season when they have clinched their playoff position.

And, golfers play fewer tournaments now than they once did.

In 1968, Arnold Palmer played in 23 official events; Billy Casper—the leading money winner—21. Even Jack Nicklaus played in 19. Now, the tour has a rule that most golfers must play at least 15 times to keep his membership. Part of that is because stars will play overseas for appearance money, but part of it is that players don’t play as often as in the old days.

<div class="caption"> Tiger Woods walks on the 12th hole during the second round of the 2019 Masters. </div> <cite class="credit">Kevin C. Cox/Getty images</cite>
Tiger Woods walks on the 12th hole during the second round of the 2019 Masters.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty images

Woods has never played more than 21 tournaments in a year—and he did that early in his career. In 2013, his last healthy season prior to the injuries that sidelined him for most of four years, he played 16 times. Last year he played 18 times—and has admitted he probably overplayed trying to get tournament sharp again.

Before the PGA Tour’s schedule change this year, the last three majors of the summer came in a nine-week burst—U.S. Open; four-week gap; Open Championship, three-week gap; PGA. Most top players teed it up once or twice between the two Opens and no more than once between the Open and the PGA.

Now, the calendar is different, with the PGA coming soon after the Masters. If Woods was 10 years younger—or seven surgeries lighter—he would probably play this week. But he’s not, and he’s smart enough to let his body tell him what to do.

Given how sharp he was at Augusta and the confidence he had coming out of there, he doesn’t really need to play a tournament to arrive at Bethpage feeling confident. It’s not as if he needs to tinker with his swing.

Woods also announced last week that he’s going to play in the new PGA Tour event in Japan this October. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s a mistake. Just as he needs rest at key times during the year at this stage of his career, he needs a real offseason. He doesn’t need around-the-world air travel. Sure, he’ll be on a private plane, but there’s a reason he cut way back on overseas play while dealing with his back issues in recent years.

Woods will be making a long plane trip to Australia as captain of the Presidents Cup team in December, why does he need another long trip in October? Once the FedEx Cup is over in August, the best thing he can do is rest, spend time with his kids and prepare for the Presidents Cup.

There’s no doubt his decision to play in Japan makes the PGA Tour happy—the tour sees the Far East as its next corporate gold mine, which is why there will be three official tour events in Asia this fall—one in South Korea, one in Shanghai and the new tournament in Japan. There is also corporate gold to be mined in Asia by individual players—Woods perhaps foremost among them. That’s why many players build their fall schedules around the overseas events.

But Woods’ career at this point is about one thing and one thing only: trying to find a way to win four more major titles. Nothing else matters. He doesn’t need any more money or to win the FedEx Cup again. Winning more majors is about history. The FedEx Cup is about … well, money. Period.

Woods should spend the fall relaxing, play his hit-and-giggle exhibition in the Bahamas and then get on a plane to fly to Australia. Soon after he comes home, the holidays will come and go and his attention will turn to trying to win another green jacket.

For the moment though, Woods will be rested when he gets to Bethpage in a couple of weeks. That is a smart play.

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