JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Tiger Woods has a pretty sharp sense of humor. You just have to be in on the joke.
For instance, after his Saturday round at The Barclays, he deadpanned to reporters that he told caddie Joe LaCava to meet him at the driving range after his media responsibilities.
If you hadn’t seen Woods’ third-round performance, it sounds like an innocuous comment. Just another example of a player who wants to get in a few more swings before sundown.
For those who witnessed his round, though, for those who watched him wince and grimace and twist and stretch all afternoon, it was easy to recognize this as simply his brand of sarcasm.
With back pain that was noticeably affecting him throughout the day, the last thing Woods wanted was a practice session on the range following a grit-through-it, grind-it-out round of 2-under 69.
“I hung in there,” he said of the round. “It's golf. You just kind of grind it out. It's a long day.”
Woods has issued similar comments after each of the first three rounds this week, his back pain becoming progressively worse as every round wears on. For a while in this one, it appeared that “hanging in there” wouldn’t include getting his name back on the first page of the leaderboard.
In fact, for much of the third round, a few notions permeated the thoughts of those watching him.
Maybe we’ve underrated these FedEx Cup Playoff events. Maybe we’ve failed to understand just how much they mean to him.
For years, Woods has explained to anyone who will listen that he holds the four major championships in higher regard than all other tournaments. And yes, that even includes the PGA Tour’s end-of-season bonus babies.
But how else were we to explain his performance throughout most of this day? He was treating the proceedings like he’s treated Moving Day at the majors lately. He entered the third round with a good chance of getting himself into position to win the next day and looked like he’d be exiting with less of a chance.
Alright, so maybe it wasn’t nerves or pressure or whatever other explanation/excuse you’d like to offer for his weekend struggles at majors over the past half-decade that was afflicting him at Liberty National.
Whatever has been causing so many major championship Moving Day sagas in recent years, it’s likely had more to do with technical mechanics and mental progressions than physical ailments.
This wasn’t a grind-it-out day in the sense that he just couldn’t get a feel for his long game or a rhythm with his putting. This was a grind-it-out day based on the pain he was feeling.
Sure, it was a far cry from the 2008 U.S. Open, when Woods won his 14th career major title on one leg, but the discomfort was obvious. From bending down to place his tee in the ground to reaching into the cup to pluck his golf ball and everything in between, he endured a level of anguish that was clearly affecting his result.
After stuffing his opening-hole approach shot to a foot for birdie, Woods bogeyed the third and fourth holes, then followed with another bogey on the seventh. It appeared, much like his increasingly regular Saturday performances at the majors, that this Moving Day would again find him moving in the wrong direction.
As he said, though, he hung in there and grinded it out.
Woods posted a bogey-free back nine that included birdies on three of his final six holes. A day that looked at one point like it would keep him from contention, turned right around. He started in a share of eighth place, five strokes off the lead; he ended in a share of fourth place, four strokes off the lead.
While he allowed afterward that he would continue receiving treatment on his back, Woods also broached the subject of Sunday’s final round with optimism. If he could stay in contention with physical pain, he could win if it finally dissipates.
“It starts off great every day, and then it progressively deteriorates as the day goes on,” he explained. “Hopefully tomorrow it will be one of those days again and fight through it and see if I can win a tournament.”
There’s no telling how Woods’ back will react the next time he swings a club on the range Sunday afternoon. Or how it will affect his play early in the round. Or how much pain he’ll feel as the day continues.
What we do know is that directly after his uncomfortable round on Saturday, the last thing he wanted was to hit another golf ball. But maybe that was one of those jokes where you just had to be there.