ARDMORE, Pa. – Is anyone else having a flashback?
Five years ago this week, Tiger Woods hobbled his way to a thrilling U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines. That was his last major title, No. 14, and perhaps his most memorable.
That week, his knee would occasionally buckle mid-swing. He would stagger off the tee box and limp down the fairway. His face would twist in pain. But Woods would always downplay the pain publicly, even saying in his winner’s news conference, “It’s a bit sore. I need to take a little bit of a break.”
That “break” turned out to be the rest of the year. A few days after that Open, he revealed that he was undergoing season-ending surgery. He had been playing 10 months with a torn ligament in his left knee, and for two weeks with a double stress fracture in his left leg.
Watching Woods on Friday afternoon – when he gritted out an even-par 70 to sit four shots off the clubhouse lead at the U.S. Open – did anyone else have a flashback?
This time, the injury in question was his left arm. On at least four occasions Thursday, Woods shook his wrist and elbow and grimaced, turning his face away from the camera to shield his discomfort. But when he was asked by a USGA official about the injury, Woods replied: “It’s fine.”
When play resumed Friday morning, and Woods signed for an opening-round 73, he was a bit more forthcoming. Well, kind of. “It is what it is,” he said of the pain, “and you move on.”
Ever the thespian, Woods flinched only when hacking out of the 5- and 6-inch rough, which wasn’t all that often, since he has dialed back off the tee with plenty of irons and fairway woods.
The exception during the second round was the par-4 eighth hole – his 16th of the day – when Woods’ tee shot with an iron sent a jolt up his left arm. It didn’t help that his ball trickled a few feet into the juicy rough. From there, he thrashed out with a wedge, but immediately after impact he took his left hand off the club and wrapped it around his back, shook his head and even grunted something, the most demonstrative of his reactions through two rounds. A few minutes later, he curled in a 12-foot par putt.
Afterward, the years-long chess match between him and the press resumed. Clearly Woods was dealing with a left-arm injury, the extent of which only he knew. But he was in no mood to reveal any details, as is his wont, guarding his ailments as if showing up on the injury report would alter his opponents’ game plan this weekend.
Anyway, the exchange in the interview area Friday afternoon unfolded like this:
You were clearly in a lot of pain yesterday. When did you first hurt it?
“A few weeks ago.”
Does it feel better or worse after your first round?
“Well, it is what it is.”
How did you hurt yourself?
“Playing golf at The Players.”
That was odd. Woods, of course, had showed no ill effects en route to his impressive victory at TPC Sawgrass, his fourth win of the season.
And clearly, he didn’t consider the injury too serious or he wouldn’t have competed three weeks later at the Memorial. He didn’t appear to show any discomfort there either, though he was out of sorts with his game all week and finished T-65.
Because that was such a curious response, the digging continued.
Asked when he hurt himself at The Players, he replied: “One of the rounds.”
Only Tiger could make Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich seem glib and analytical.
In truth, Woods’ sub-par short game is harming his U.S. Open chances more than any elbow inflammation. The same issues that plagued him at Muirfield Village have resurfaced here, even though when Woods finished his round at 3-over 143 he was only four shots off the clubhouse lead, with Merion’s baby teeth slowly aging into full-blown fangs.
Throughout his second round Woods made a few crucial par saves, most notably on Nos. 17, 5 and 8 (the latter two from 12-plus feet), but he can’t rely on that kind of clutch putting all week. His chips and pitches haven’t been nearly as precise as an Open venue demands.
Most glaring was the par-4 seventh, measuring just 368 yards for Round 2. Creeping toward the top of the leaderboard, Woods tugged his wedge shot barely left of the green, into a dastardly spot on the short side. He flubbed his first pitch, advancing the ball only a few feet, and stubbed the next, too. He sank a 5-footer for bogey.
For Woods, this was a long, arduous day, one that began with a range session before 6 a.m. ET and ended before 4 p.m.. This was 25 1/2 holes – which he played collectively in 1 over par – and the hard day’s work showed not just on his mud-splattered white shoes but also his weary face.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Woods said, when asked if fatigue was a factor on a day such as this. “And it’s not exactly like we’re playing fast out there. They’re just slow rounds. It takes its toll on you.”
How much of a toll physically, well, we’re left to wonder.
Woods knows he has been injured (far more seriously) and won an Open before. He knows more 6-inch rough awaits, eager to swallow up an errant shot and dole out more punishment. But Woods didn’t flinch when asked if he liked his chances heading into the weekend at Merion:
“Yes,” he replied, and didn’t elaborate.
That part sounds familiar, too. Is anyone else having a flashback?