AKRON, Ohio – A two-hour window Wednesday provided a snapshot of a strange year for Tiger Woods.
The guy famous for sweeping dew off the grass with his crack-of-dawn practice rounds arrived shortly before lunch on the eve of the Bridgestone Invitational to play nine holes at Firestone. That’s not terribly unusual, for Woods knows Firestone as well as any other course, and it’s where he made history last year as the only player to win a PGA Tour event seven times on the same course.
One tee shot into his practice round, the siren sounded because of dangerous weather.
He wound up playing only four holes.
This year has been anything but routine. Woods didn’t start until the Masters while coping with the fallout from his extramarital affairs. He has gone seven tournaments without winning, the longest drought at the start of any season since he turned pro.
And in comments that were veiled yet somewhat revealing, Woods said the distractions he faces in his personal life affect him as much during practice as they do during tournaments.
“I haven’t been able to practice as long as I normally have when I’ve been out here,” Woods said. “People have been wanting more of my time. I’ve had more things going on once I’m at a tournament site than I have in the past, and for different reasons. That’s obviously taken a little bit of a toll on my preparation.
“Things are starting to normalize,” he said. “And that’s been a good sign.”
Who wants more of his time? Woods didn’t elaborate.
He has refused to answer questions about his personal life. Notah Begay, one of his best friends, mentioned last month at a press conference that Woods is going through a divorce, which most have suspected.
That would be one thing that Woods couldn’t turn over to his business team to handle.
“It’s been difficult,” Woods said. “It’s been a trying time for a lot of people who are friends of mine and who know me. It’s been tough, no doubt.”
As for the golf? Woods believes it’s getting closer, and only he knows.
The results have not been impressive, especially considering the places he has been. This was supposed to be the year that Woods, with his 14 majors, made inroads into the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. But he fell apart early in the final round at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open, and after opening with a 65 in easy conditions at St. Andrews, he was never a factor the rest of the week.
The culprit has been putting, and Woods attributes that to not getting the right speed.
He also attributed it to lack of practice.
“Just had to go back to basics and practice a little bit more,” Woods said. “I haven’t worked on my putting probably as much as I should have the last couple of years. So had to go back to that.”
Putting was his primary focus in the two weeks he has been at home in Florida since the British Open.
Why did he stop practicing as much in the first place?
“I haven’t had time,” he said. “I haven’t had as much time to practice overall, with the kids. Life has changed.”
Only players know how much time they really put into the game, although Woods brought attention to his preparations for the British Open when he flew home from a two-day charity event in Ireland for four days instead of staying over in Ireland or Scotland and practicing links golf ahead of one of his favorite majors.
Firestone should be a good gauge on his game, perhaps even more than St. Andrews.
Woods first played the tree-lined course as a teenager when he traveled through Ohio with his father. He made his debut in 1997 when it was the old World Series of Golf. In 11 appearances, he has seven victories and has never finished out of the top 5. Not even his record at Torrey Pines is that daunting.
It has been six years since Woods teed it up at Firestone without winning. He was a runner-up that year.
“I’ve always liked this type … golf courses like this where the shape is very simple,” Woods said. “It’s not target golf, and I’ve always liked that.”
The timing has rarely been so important.
Woods slipped to No. 9 in the Ryder Cup standings this week, giving him only two tournaments – the World Golf Championship this week and the PGA Championship next week – to get into the top eight and qualify for the U.S. team.
Asked if he would play in the Ryder Cup as a captain’s pick, Woods replied, “I’m planning on playing my way onto the team.”
Two more questions along the same line produced the same answer. It was Woods’ way of saying he’s not thinking about anything else but playing well enough to make the team, just like he doesn’t practice from drop zones, like he refused to practice out of the Church Pew bunkers at Oakmont before the U.S. Open.
Also at stake this week is his No. 1 ranking, which he has held the last five years. Phil Mickelson has had a chance to overtake him since the middle of May, but now Lee Westwood is in position to get to No. 1 by winning at Firestone.
“How I got here in the first place was by winning golf tournaments, and how I will sustain it is by winning golf tournaments,” Woods said. “Winning golf tournaments takes cares of a lot of things, and being No. 1 in one of them.”