FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Tiger Woods’ second round at The Barclays can easily be summarized in one sentence: He striped it like Old Tiger while gingerly maneuvering like an Old Tiger.
The scorecard will show a 2-under 69 that leaves him in a share of 7th place entering the weekend, just three strokes off the lead. Like most scorecards, though, it doesn’t begin to tell the entire story.
This round may not have contained the drama nor had the impact of his final few turns around Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open, but there were snippets of the same emotions. Continuously limping around Bethpage Black like a man twice his age, the 36-year-old was left hobbled this time by a balky lower back – not a knee.
“Must have slept funny on it,” he said afterward. “Soft beds at the hotel, and woke up this morning with it stiff. You know, as I warmed up, it got progressively worse, and then you saw what happened on the golf course.”
What happened was a guy playing through pain.
The snapshots of the day are ones of misery and agony. There was the measured crouch on the seventh green to read his putt. The noticeable wince after his tee shot on 10. The cringe after slipping while walking down the side of a hill into a fairway bunker on 12. The groan after a mighty drive on 16. And the conspicuous grimace every time he bent down to pluck his ball out of the cup.
Woods joked to caddie Joe LaCava at one point that “I feel like Freddie” – a nod toward perennially injured Fred Couples, who somewhat ironically withdrew from a Champions Tour event on Friday with – you got it – a bad back.
The only thing that wasn’t hurting was Woods’ golf game.
He hit 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation – the exact numbers he had during his opening-round 68. He opened with back-to-back bogeys, but followed with four birdies and a dozen pars in his remaining 16 holes. He also left himself very much in contention for his fourth PGA Tour victory of the season.
“It didn't feel very good, but I got it around -- and just because the swing didn't feel very good doesn't mean I can't make every putt,” he explained. “I went out there with that kind of mindset and just buried a bunch of putts.”
When it comes to Tiger and injuries, every armchair observer turns into Marcus Welby, MD. "I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV…”
The fact is, any long-term career analysis without any further medical prognosis is careless and even a bit negligent. After the round, Woods didn’t seem overly concerned with the injury. In fact, he wouldn’t even call it that when comparing it with that famous U.S. Open from four years ago.
“There's a difference between being in pain and injured,” he explained. “This is just a little bit of pain. That was an injury.”
That’s requisite tough-guy talk for someone who is so outwardly fond of the military and appreciates the Navy SEALs and other special forces. Woods sees himself more as an athlete than “just a golfer” – and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they should have checked the fitness trailer on any given week over the past decade to find the rest of his peers trying to keep up.
If we learned anything on Friday, it’s that even if this back problem plagues Woods at times for the remainder of his career, that doesn’t mean he can’t still compete and – more important – contend while in pain.
It would be premature to claim Tiger won’t break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship record or Sam Snead’s PGA Tour victory mark based solely on one afternoon with a tweaked back, just as it would be similarly unmindful to argue that he’ll reach those goals simply because he played another strong round.
When asked if he believed playing hurt would be the “new normal” for the rest of his career, Woods shot back, “Well, geez, that's been the case since my first surgery in '94. I've been dealing with this stuff since I was 18. I had my first cut at Stanford in '94.”
He did admit, however, that such maladies are more difficult to recover from the older he gets.
“It's harder to recover, there's no doubt,” he said. “But I'm infinitely stronger than I used to be and just as flexible as I used to be, which is very good.”
After the round, Tiger received treatment in the PGA Tour's fitness trailer for one hour, four minutes before leaving the course for the day. He maintained that he would likely sleep on his hotel-room floor overnight – which he called “nothing new,” revealing that he often does so when playing in Europe.
Near the end of his abbreviated post-round interview session with the media, Woods confidently claimed, “I'll be ready by tomorrow.”
For much of the past few years, so much talk in the golf world has circulated around whether Tiger is “back.” Based on his performance so far this season, that appears to be the case. Now we’ll see if his back can come back, too.
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