DUBLIN, Ohio – Before pacesetter Justin Rose had even arrived at Muirfield Village, before host Jack Nicklaus had finished his annual Sunday scrum with reporters, before lunch, Tiger Woods completed his surreal round of 74 at the Memorial.
The world’s 172nd-ranked player tipped a sweat-stained hat toward the surprisingly large crowd that ringed Muirfield Village’s 18th hole and tried to manage a weak smile from behind tired eyes.
Like he has for a lifetime of PGA Tour Sundays, Woods was clad in his signature red and black, but on this day, everything was different.
The five-time Memorial winner set out at 8:10 a.m. (ET) alone with his thoughts and reminders of his misadventures waiting at every turn. How, for example, did he double bogey Nos. 8 and 9 on Saturday? Did he really make a quadruple bogey-8 at the last hole on Day 3?
To his credit, Woods took the long view when he was finally asked about that third-round 85, his highest score in 1,158 Tour rounds.
“I had to go through yesterday. I had to go through those painful moments, just like I did at Torrey and Phoenix to be able to make the leap I did at Augusta,” Woods said. “Yesterday was the same thing. It was just unfortunately on a golf course like this where you can't get away with much. It kicked my butt pretty hard.”
That missed cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open – which included a Friday 82 – and his withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open begat his tie for 17th at the Masters, his first top-20 Tour finish since 2013. Following that progression, just imagine what’s next following Woods’ last-place finish at the Memorial.
Highest round on Tour.
Highest four-day total (302).
Hope springs eternal.
For a decade and a half, Woods made the game appear so easy, hit the ball, putt the ball, pick up trophies. And he did so with a legion of fans alongside cheering victories large and small. But on Saturday, it was a solidary figure who stumbled his way around Jack’s Place.
Never before had the competitive blinders seemed so impenetrable.
“This is a lonely sport,” he allowed on Sunday. “The manager is not going to come in and bring the righty or bring the lefty, you've just got to play through it. When you're off, no one is going to pick you up either. It's one of those sports that's tough, deal with it.”
Despite it all, Woods remained surprisingly upbeat, touching on his normal talking points of “process” and “patterns,” and the need to keep moving forward.
For all the hyperbole, this is just Woods’ sixth start with swing consultant Chris Como. That’s hardly a West Coast swing for most players, but in the fishbowl where Woods lives, it’s more than enough of a sample size for some to declare the experiment a failure.
But for a player who has endured similar peaks and valleys between swings - three as a professional to be precise - the road to redemption has never been an easy ride.
“The guys that have made tweaks, you have moments where you go backwards and then you make big, major strides down the road. That's just the way it goes,” said Woods, who has failed to break par in nine of his last 14 Tour rounds.
“You have to look at the big picture. You can't be so myopic with your view and expect to have one magical day or one magical shot and change your whole game. It doesn't work that way.”
There was certainly nothing magical about his week in central Ohio. There’s probably little in those 302 strokes that would make Woods think that better days are on the horizon.
He missed more fairways (31 of 56) and more greens (37 of 72) than anyone else who made the cut, which doesn’t exactly scream, “bring on the U.S. Open.”
Although Woods would never use such esoteric terms, Nicklaus – arguably the definitive source when it comes to Tiger by virtue of the duo’s historical connection – figured that better days were ahead for the former world No. 1.
“I think he’s hit rock bottom a few times in the last couple years. I think he’s tired of finding a new low. I can understand that. He’ll climb out of it,” the Golden Sage said.
“I don’t know whether it’s in his head, whether it’s in his swing, whether it’s in his body. . . . All I know is that he’ll have to go and regroup, as we all have to do at times, and find out.”
For Woods’ five victories at Muirfield Village, it was always Nicklaus who was waiting for him just off the 18th green to offer his traditional congratulations.
Early Sunday as he trudged up the hill there was no one there for Tiger. Just as he’d been for a strange three hours he was alone with his thoughts and a growing list of nagging questions.