Woods had zero to prove and little to gain from squeaking by the cut at this PGA Championship and trudging through two more excruciating rounds. A normal person would’ve taken a double bogey at the 11th as a not-so-subtle hint: just pack it in, man. Go through the motions, avoid pain insomuch as that’s possible, and get back to Jupiter in time to sleep in your own bed. Heck, Rory McIlroy would’ve done it even sooner.
“Looking at him yesterday, if that would have been me, I would have been considering pulling out and just going home,” McIlroy said after losing to Woods by two, in utter awe of his playing partner’s fight. “But Tiger is different.”
Indeed, Tiger Woods is a singular entity with a preternatural knack for locking in on a singular goal. On Friday, that goal was to make the cut, dammit. So that’s what he was going to do.
Put simply, in his own words: “You can’t win the tournament if you miss the cut.”
Friday afternoon’s one-under 69, which has Woods at three over for the tournament and making the weekend with a shot to spare, won’t make any highlight compilations of Woods’ finest moments. But it was a genuine masterclass in the Art of the Grind. As his gait slowed to a tip-toe, the sweat poured down his temples and his ankle swelled—Woods said earlier in this week that his surgically rebuilt right leg has more stamina than it did at the Masters, but we’re still waiting for evidence—Woods grit his teeth and somehow managed to play his last seven holes in two under par to guarantee two more tee times at Southern Hills.
This wasn’t fairways-green-two-putts golf, either. Woods one-putted six greens in a row after that double bogey. There was a 14-footer for par after he pulled his approach into a short-sided bunker; an eight-footer for birdie at 13 after he carved a wedge around a tree; a 15-footer for par on the par-3 14th; an up-and-in from absolutely nowhere after airmailing the 15th green; a 5-iron to four feet for a birdie on the par-4 16th, which plays as a par 5 for membership; a nervy four-footer for par at 17; and, finally, two excellent swings at 18 to seal the deal.
“Just unbelievable making the cut at Augusta and making the cut here,” McIlroy said. “I was joking with (Woods’ caddie) Joey (LaCava) yesterday and saying, he could have came back and played like Honda and Valspar, two of the flattest courses on tour. It might have been a bit easier for him, but he comes to two of the toughest walks that we have. But yeah, just incredibly resilient and mentally tough. To get a front-row seat—he’s feeling it, and he’s feeling it on every swing, but to see what he did on that back nine … it was just a monumental effort.”
And so Woods will play the weekend once again. He has played two tournaments since his right leg was crushed by an SUV, both major championships, and he has made the cut both times. He still believes he can win this week. Of course he does. Realism is rarely a strength of the all-time greats.
“I’m hoping I can shoot a number like Bubba did today, tomorrow,” Woods said dead-pan, referring to Bubba Watson’s seven-under 63. “That’s where my mind is at right now.
I’ve got to do some things physically to get myself there tomorrow and it will be a quick turnaround. That’s the reward you get for just making the cut. You get to tee off early the next day, and hopefully I can get it in. The weather is supposed to be a little more difficult and be a little more testy, and hopefully that’s the case. If that’s the case, hopefully I can post a good round and at least move up the board, get myself within striking distance on Sunday.
“I’m pretty far back, but you just never know. Major championships are hard to win. We’ve seen guys with big leads or have made big comebacks, so you just never know.
His belief aside, Woods will almost certainly not win this week, and that will peeve him. He’s also clearly frustrated by the way his leg feels after insisting early in the week that he had made significant strides over the past month. That’s not to doubt the veracity of his self-assessment; the leg surely did feel better on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and maybe even Wednesday. But it began to scream on Thursday, and in watching him inch up Southern Hills’ one proper hill, the word “progress” did not come to mind.
But Friday’s round wasn’t about building toward Brookline or St. Andrews. Woods’ mind doesn’t operate that way. He’s tunnel-vision, all the time. It’s the reason, after all this, that he’s in Oklahoma this week. And it’s the reason he’s sticking around for a few more days.