LOUISVILLE, Ky. – With all the ease of a man on a Sunday stroll, Tiger Woods patiently explained late Wednesday at Valhalla Golf Club that he is playing this week’s PGA Championship, well . . . because he can.
The pain that forced him to withdraw midway through Sunday’s final round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is gone. The spasms that caused him to throw out his sacrum, a thing of the past.
What remained in the humid summer air was uncertainty.
Just past 1 p.m., the most photographed parking spot in golf history was finally filled when Woods arrived for an 11th-hour practice round at the year’s final major.
Speculation had swept Valhalla following Woods’ early Firestone exit last Sunday, and as the tournament inched closer to his 8:35 a.m. first-round tee time, it seemed more and more likely that Woods' season, at least on the PGA Tour, was over.
On Tuesday, officials granted Woods an extension to register late for this week’s event, a common practice at all events but telling nonetheless.
When Woods finally made his way to the practice tee, fans were lined five deep along the gallery rails and players stopped to watch. After an abbreviated warm-up session, he was off for what can only be described as an uneventful practice session.
“Nothing great, but it’s only Wednesday,” he smiled.
Alongside Steve Stricker, Davis Love III and Harris English, Woods played nine holes, pausing to speak with the media before walking the back nine to chip and putt.
For all the hyperbole and speculation, however, Woods remained pragmatic about the injury, explaining that this most recent setback had nothing to do with the microdiscectomy surgery he had on March 31 that forced him to miss the year’s first two major championships.
“It’s not the same surgery,” he said between nines. “This is something totally different. When I landed (on the second hole Sunday at Firestone), it jarred it and jarred it lose, made it come out.”
Woods also explained that he was pain free heading into the first round, and that he’d only practiced slow-motion swings in his video bay back home in Florida before making the decision Tuesday afternoon to play this week.
Simply put, he’s playing because he can. Not because he’s 70th on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list with just four days remaining to make his move. Not because he’s 217th on the FedEx Cup points list with just two weeks to secure his spot in the playoffs.
“My range of motion was good,” he explained. “My firing sequence was back to normal. It’s all good.”
Some grassy knoll types have suggested that Woods was perhaps not as injured as he suggested on Sunday. But if that’s the case, he should add an Oscar to those 14 majors because what he exhibited on Sunday at the Bridgestone was legitimate pain.
The truth is this week’s PGA is a Hail Mary for Woods in his quest to advance to the postseason and earn a spot on captain Tom Watson’s team in September in Scotland. Anything short of a victory on both fronts, which given his competitive fortunes of late doesn’t seem likely, would not be enough to secure his status for either cup.
Nor would it make much sense to play the PGA just to test his back; Valhalla is no place for a rehabilitation start.
Which leaves the only explanation that stands up to reason. He’s playing the 96th PGA Championship because he can and because he wants to win.
“That’s the only thing I can control. Try to go out there and win this event. That’s all I’m focused on,” he said.
Maybe Woods has spent enough time on the DL after missing more than two months following surgery. And it should be pointed out that earlier this year he admitted that this recent most brush with the MRI machine brought into focus the fragility of age.
No more would he ignore doctor’s orders and limp his way to major championships because, at 38, his mind is no longer strong enough to overcome an ailing body.
Listening to Woods patiently explain his plight on Wednesda,y it was impossible not to give him the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t about unrealistic goals or misplaced bravado, this was about playing – nothing more, nothing less.
There is no shortage of reasons why Woods would want to play the PGA, but the only one that makes sense is he’s playing because he can.