ATLANTA – We’ve said this before, but it seems particularly apropos considering the ebb and flow of Tiger Woods’ Friday edition at East Lake – the guy in the red shirt is an old 37.
Maybe not since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines has that truth been so evident.
On Friday following a 1-over 71 that should have been a 65, a day removed from a 73 that should have been a 68, Woods looked tired. He looked like a man whose body has endured 37 hard years on the golf course and in the gym, a man who – although widely billed as the fittest athlete in the game – was running on fumes, both mentally and physically.
Full disclosure: Every player on the PGA Tour is dealing with some sort of ailment and a tank that is dangerously close to empty as the season winds down at the Tour Championship. Woods acknowledged as much.
“Everyone out here has got some knick-knack injuries, and guys are taped up and banged up a little bit,” he said. “So we're all looking forward to (next week’s break).”
Even Henrik Stenson, who appears to be closing on the $11.4 million payday this week, said on Thursday that fatigue was a factor in his Monday meltdown at the BMW Championship, where he tied for 33rd and proceeded to destroy a driver and a locker.
“It comes down to being tired. I played so much golf. I played so well, and I just haven't been able to get any rest,” the Swede said following his opening 64. “That's not the best place to be and not the best frame of mind to play good golf.”
With Woods, however, it just seems a tad more relevant. Whether it was his dramatic drop to his knees with back pain at The Barclays, or Friday’s mental lapses at the Tour Championship, exhaustion, in mind and body, seems to have become an occupational hazard for the world No. 1 in 2013.
The result on a warm and breezy Friday in Atlanta was an early surge that lifted Woods to 5 under through 13 holes, and into the top 10 just two strokes out of second place, to a 6-over-par run through the closing five that left him tied for last when he signed his card.
“I put everything I had into that start and didn't have much at the end. Just ran out of gas,” he said.
Mental exhaustion likely led to a double-bogey 6 at the 14th hole. A pulled drive, a gambling second shot that failed, a poor third followed by a bunker shot to 13 feet that may, when all is said and done on Sunday, have cost him a chance at the FedEx Cup and perhaps his 11th Player of the Year Award.
Physical fatigue was the catalyst for an even more unsightly triple-bogey 7 at the 17th hole after he pulled his drive into the lake left of the fairway and needed four more shots to reach the putting surface.
“My legs were just tired. I didn't rotate through the ball, and I turned it over,” he said.
This is Woods’ 16th event of 2013, which is hardly above average, but his sixth start in seven events. As a rule, he hasn’t played more than two or three weeks in a row during his Hall of Fame career. In fact, since the FedEx Cup era began in 2007, this marks just the second time he’s played all four playoff events.
Marathon runs just aren’t in his DNA, although he conceded there is little he can do to change the late-season rush of so-called must-play events. And things aren’t going to get any easier the next few years.
“It is what it is,” he said. “We play a lot of golf from the British Open on. It helps that some of the years where I have gotten worn out is when I've been in contention a lot, four rounds being in contention. Unfortunately, I've only had a couple of tournaments there where I've been right in the hunt, at Barclays and ended up winning it at Firestone (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational).”
Because of an agreement between the PGA Tour and PGA of America, there will be no “bye” week during next year’s playoff, with the off week coming after the Tour Championship and before the Ryder Cup in Scotland. And in 2016, the Olympics promise to upend the schedule even more as the majors shift to make room for the Rio Games.
It has always been injury – be it knee, Achilles’, back or other – that many felt would keep Woods from catching Jack Nicklaus in his pursuit of the Golden Bear’s mark of 18 majors, but through 36 holes at East Lake it is starting to look like it may be decreasing energy levels that stall his march to the Grand Slam summit.
Following his Friday round, one scribe even asked if Woods would consider a Steve Stricker-like schedule in the future.
“I normally do,” Woods smiled.
Others have found their competitive second winds in their 40s and there is no reason to think Woods is entering the twilight of his career. But the story, at least on Friday, was etched into his face.
“I'm tired,” Woods allowed. “It's been just a long, long grind.”