PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Tiger Woods’ major championship season ended with a whimper on Friday at Royal Portrush, with a missed cut at The Open to bookend an otherwise successful campaign following his victory at the Masters. His decade of Grand Slam turbulence, however, came to a much more complicated conclusion.
For the season there’s no other way to slice it. Woods’ victory in April at Augusta National, be it a swansong or otherwise, will always rank among his greatest accomplishments. It was etched into his face on that surreal Sunday what major title No. 15 meant to him.
But while that high-water mark can temper the disappointment that has followed in the majors, including a short stay at Royal Portrush, it doesn’t erase what has been an otherwise wasted decade.
For Woods, the 2010s was a decade of contradictions. All total, he played 28 of the 40 majors – which in itself is an indictment of the single most important rule of Grand Slam golf: You can’t win a major if you don’t play a major. He missed eight major cuts over the last 10 years, compared with just two missed weekends when he was in full flight in the 2000s.
But then comparing Woods’ play with the 2000s is wildly unfair. He began that decade with a flourish, with four consecutive major victories starting at the 2000 U.S. Open. He would collect 12 of his 15 majors in that era.
By comparison, it was an ominous start to this decade as the firestorm that stemmed from Woods’ Nov. 27, 2009 car crash spiraled into a very personal and very public crisis. He returned to the PGA Tour at the 2010 Masters, following an “indefinite leave,” and tied for fourth place. Two months later he matched that finish at the U.S. Open. Those showings would prove to be the pinnacle of his major performance for much of the decade.
There were flashes of progress along the way – ties for fourth at the ’11 and ’13 Masters, and third at the ’12 Open – but as the decade wore on it was clear he was a shell of his former self as his injuries began to pile up.
In 2010, he endured an inflamed facet joint in his neck. The next year it was a left Achilles strain and in ’13 he was slowed by a left elbow strain. But the worst of his medical misadventures still awaited.
Following multiple starts and stops he had surgery on a pinched nerve in his lower back in ’14 that led to him missing the Masters and U.S. Open. Next was microdiscectomy surgery in ’15, followed by another procedure later that year. Spinal fusion surgery in April 2017, which kept him from playing any of that season’s majors, was a Hail Mary, by any measure.
When he finally returned under a cloud of uncertainty he quickly exceeded even his own expectations, first putting himself in the hunt at last year’s Open Championship and then throwing a final-round 64 at Brooks Koepka that came up two shots short at the PGA Championship.
In April, the stars aligned perfectly for Woods at Augusta National, where he outlasted the likes of Koepka and Francesco Molinari, for his 15th major triumph and a long-awaited narrative change.
“I can win majors now,” he said with a smile that Sunday in Georgia.
But whatever momentum he may have gleaned from his Masters victory was short lived. Following a four-week break from the grind he arrived at Bethpage for the new May PGA Championship and missed the cut, conceding that cold, wet and rainy conditions really aren’t his thing any longer.
After a largely indifferent tie for 21st at the U.S. Open he arrived in Northern Ireland for the decade’s major finale following a similar monthlong hiatus – he’s only played a dozen rounds on Tour since his victory at Augusta National – and talked of not hitting the ball the way he wanted, which is Tiger speak for low expectations.
On Thursday at Royal Portrush, Woods moved like a man who had endured four back surgeries, as a steady march of rain and wind pelted away at his title hopes.
He admitted to being sore, but he seemed more sour.
“I'm not 24 anymore. Life changes, life moves on,” he admitted after a first-round 78. “I can't devote the hours to practice like I used to. Standing on the range, hitting balls for four or five hours, go play 36, come back, run 4 or 5 miles and then go to the gym. Those days are gone, OK?”
Woods’ major season wrap doesn’t diminish his victory at the Masters, but it certainly puts the moment in perspective. On his best days, when the mind, body and swing all cooperate he can still do special things with a golf club. Those days, however, will be fleeting.
Following his victory in April, the conversation recklessly turned to Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships, but that narrative appears to be a prisoner of a moment, one that has become increasingly difficult to manufacture. If Woods’ real major genius was his consistency, it’s difficult to now imagine how he maintains that’s balance between being competitively sharp four times a year and healthy.
“That's one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you're not going to be as consistent as you were at 23,” he said. “I'm going to have my hot weeks. I'm going to be there in contention with a chance to win, and I will win tournaments. But there are times when I'm just not going to be there.”
Woods’ desire and determination are beyond reproach, but age and injury are formidable foes.
“I have to be realistic about my expectations and hopefully peaking at the right time. I peaked at Augusta well. And hopefully I can peak a few more times this year,” he allowed.
It’s economically ironic that the Tour, which continues to flourish thanks in no small part to Woods’ appeal, has created a major championship schedule that’s no friend to Tiger. By compressing the major championship season with the PGA’s move to May the circuit has dramatically tightened the Grand Slam window for a player who admits to needing the luxury of time to ride the ebbs and flows of the season.
For the 43-year-old, his ability to still win majors is no longer in question. But what is also clear as he closes the book on this decade of majors, is a new reality that will be defined by the relentless march of time.