PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods stood on the ninth tee, his final hole of the day, and he knew what he had to do. How many times had he faced this exact situation? It had to be birdie … nothing else would work. He looked over the fairway of this par 5 and went into that concentration sector where few have been able to go. He needed a good drive. And he got one — he hit his drive down the left side, 269 yards, just where he was aiming.
That put him too far from the pin to go for it. He hit his layup shot in the center of the fairway, and when he got to the ball he realized that it was 103 yards from the pin … this is what players call “a bad number.” Players would like to have a distance that perfectly fits the full swing of a certain club. A shot of 103 yards would normally be a good fit for a Tiger sand wedge, but because of the wind, because he was hitting uphill, the right club was sort of a quiet little pitching wedge. This was a shot that required all the finesse and touch and feel that Woods has developed in his many years as the world’s singular golfer.
He choked down on the pitching wedge and feathered a little shot that hopped and rolled to 9 feet from the cup. Wonderful stuff. The crowd — the biggest crowd by far for anyone — was ecstatic. Then the fans were quiet. They watched nervously as Woods studied his putt. He had to make it, everyone knew it, and few in the history of this game have ever been better at making putts that had to be made. Hearts were in throats.
He stood over the putt with the steadiness we have come to know and admire. Has anyone ever looked so sure? He hit it. The ball rolled toward the cup like a child running to her father. There was never even the slightest doubt it would drop, and it did drop, and the roar was enormous, and Woods pumped his fist happily, then reached into the hole for the ball and pumped his fist again.
“It felt good,” Woods said happily when it was all over. “I hit a really good putt there.”
And that is the story of how Tiger Woods made the cut at The Players Championship.
Why do we still care so much? Why does he still matter even when he is playing simply to make cuts? It has been seven years since Woods has won a major championship. It has been almost two years since he has won any sort of golf tournament. Since his glorious, one-legged victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, he has had as many cuts and DNPs at major championships as top-10 finishes (nine each). He is, at this moment, ranked 125th in the Official World Golf Ranking, right between Freddie Jacobson and Andrew Dodt, two players who get mentioned only when used as a barometer for how far Tiger Woods has fallen in the ranking.*
*Much in the way Rhode Island gets mentioned only when someone is trying to prove how small an area is.
So why do we still care? We do, you know, even if there will be those who will write in the comments that they do not care about Tiger Woods (as they write often in the comments). At The Players, the tournament smartly paired the two hottest players in the world, No. 1 Rory McIlroy and No. 2 Jordan Spieth. The following for Tiger Woods was noticeably bigger. When McIlroy wins the match play, it’s news. When Woods and Lindsey Vonn split up, it’s NEWS, all capital letters. The ratings when Tiger Woods plays in a tournament barely even resemble the ratings when he doesn’t; the Masters this year saw a 48 percent surge with Woods in the field. This was true even though Woods had taken months off because his game was so erratic.
All of this isn’t just because Woods was such a great player. In the declining days of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and the like, sure, they had nice followings but they did not overshadow the best players of the time.
It isn’t just because Woods was such a social and pop-culture phenomenon either; Even Michael Jordan stopped being the biggest thing in the game in the last year of his career. By then, Kobe, Shaq, Duncan and a high school kid named LeBron had passed him by.
But no one passes by Woods, not in the public’s mind, and I have a theory why: I think it has something to do with an unfulfilling end, the same reason people took so long to give up on Mike Tyson. With every great athlete, there’s a scope we come to expect. They show youthful promise. They grow into stardom. They do extraordinary things at their best. They begin to show signs of age. Then all of us clearly see the end. Then, if we’re lucky, they give us one lasting moment, and they gracefully fade away into our memories.
Think of how it ended for Derek Jeter. Think of how it ended for Greg Maddux. Think of how it will end for Tim Duncan or Roger Federer; there will be sadness, sure, but it will feel right, feel like it had been a full career.
No one had a fuller career than Jack Nicklaus, of course. He had his time as the young upstart who blew a couple of tournaments. He was a phenomenon who could hit the ball higher and longer than anyone. He became the smartest golfer, and because of that his peak lasted longer than anyone’s.
Then when he was 40, he reinvented his swing and he won two more major championships. Then he played some good tournaments — proved the foil to Tom Watson’s chip shot at Pebble Beach — and finally he had the last great victory at the Masters in 1986 to make golf fans everywhere cry. Players felt like they grew up with him and, then, grew older with him. Every single thing about Jack Nicklaus’ career was fulfilling.
But with Tiger, there’s so much unfinished business. There had never been a player as good as he was when he was playing that U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. There were times he could barely even stand up, his knee hurt so badly (and shortly after the tournament ended, he had ACL surgery). Still, on the 72nd hole, he needed to make a 12-foot putt over a chewed-up green to force a playoff, and the story was not that he made it but that everyone KNEW he would make it. When he beat a game Rocco Mediate in the playoff, it was his 14th major championship, and he was not yet 33 years old, and even after the knee surgery it still felt like there would be so many more highs.
What we could not know then was this: There were no more highs. A year later, he would lose a duel to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship. Then, things would come apart after the tabloids pulled the curtains back on his out-of-control private life. He has won some tournaments since then. He even made it back to the official No. 1 spot in the world rankings for a time. But he was never Tiger Woods again, not in the biggest tournaments, not in the ways that really matter to most of us. His career has felt so … unfinished.
And so, it seems to me, we keep waiting for the proper finish. Every good shot he hits spurs the hope that it will magically bring him back. Every optimistic statement he makes — “I haven’t gotten anything out of my rounds,” he said Friday after a heroic finish got him inside the cut number. “I should be a few under par each day” — sparks the belief that he’s really figured it out this time.
Woods’ play has given no reason for any of those hopes or beliefs; we’re talking about dreams now. If he wasn’t named Tiger Woods, we would not have watched his 17th-place finish at Augusta or his birdie on the last hole at The Players and thought: “Yes, this is a player to watch.”
But his name IS Tiger Woods. And we can’t give up on the finish that once seemed so certain. How great would it be to see Woods dueling with McIlroy and Spieth and these young players who grew up watching him? How great would it be to see Woods win a major championship again and threaten that extraordinary Nicklaus record of 18 majors? How great would it be even for his critics to just root against him again?
So, yes, everyone in the gallery stood and cheered and high-fived as he made the putt to make the cut. He’s only eight shots back at The Players Championship
“Do you still feel like you have a chance?” he was asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely. … I feel like I’m playing well enough to get myself up there. I just need one good round and narrow the gap between myself and lead, and I feel I can do that.”
Right. What is eight shots when we are talking about dreams?