SAN FRANCISCO – After 4 ½ cold hours at TPC Harding Park, Tiger Woods wasn’t in a reflective mood, but he tried.
“That's golf,” he said with a shrug following a final-round 67 and a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship. “We lose way more tournaments than we win. This is one of those weeks where I didn't quite make the putts when I needed to.”
If that’s not exactly “second sucks,” give Tiger a pass in light of the circumstances. The PGA Championship was the first major played in over a year and the only one staged this season.
Golf, sports and life have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the majors have always been atop Tiger’s to-do list, this stretch of golf feels different. There will be no asterisk on Collin Morikawa’s Wanamaker Trophy, and there are still 15 million reasons to remain focused with the playoffs looming next week; but when history tells the story of the 2020 season, it will be one of missed opportunities. The U.S. Open and the Masters will still be played this year, but the fall stops will count toward the 2020-21 season, and for Tiger the flow is all off.
His entire career has been a steady ebb and flow from one major to the next, with his competitive life moving along with the seasons. There are tune-up events in California and Florida to prepare for the Masters in April, which is followed by an early-summer lull to ready himself for the U.S. Open. He would recharge before The Open and dig in to finish his year at the PGA Championship. It was championship clockwork and refined through the years to a science. You could set your calendar by it, but this year everything changed.
To be fair, the calendar changed for everyone. It’s why the PGA Tour made the unprecedented move to forgo any promotion or relegation this season. The victories will all count, the prize money will spend the same, but that's about it.
And for Tiger, 2020 comes with a nagging footnote. He’s made just five official starts this season with a victory, way back in the fall at the Zozo Championship, and four largely forgettable weeks, including his middle-of-the-pack finish at Harding Park. There was plenty to build on at the PGA Championship. His iron play remains the standard on Tour and his driving was serviceable. If anything his experiment with a new putter raised some concerns, but he explained the switch to a longer shaft on his putter is about longevity.
“It allows me to practice,” he said. “Bending over for long periods of time is not easy on the back, as most golfers can attest to. I haven't spent as much time over the course of my last, what, five to seven years putting, because I can't stand over the putts for that long or can't stand bent over for that long.”
Taking the long view is admirable, but in practical terms the new putter cost him an opportunity to at least contend at Harding Park, and that’s the rub of Tiger’s entire season.
For most players, 2020 is an inconvenience, but for Tiger it’s a missed opportunity for a man short on time. Although Tiger will talk of competing at majors into his 50s, that seems unlikely for a 44-year-old with a fragile back.
All of the technical aspects of his game aside, the most encouraging takeaway after four days of being bundled up against the marine layer chill was that Tiger remained upright and healthy.
“To me, I always look at the health. I think he feels and looks healthy. That’s big for me,” Tiger’s caddie, Joe LaCava, said. “If he’s feeling and looking healthy, I know he can play. There were plenty of good quality drives, and today, we had easier conditions, but he hit a lot of good iron shots, which I always love to see.”
Contrast that to Day 2 at last month’s Memorial, when Woods shot 76 and conceded afterward that he wakes up more days than not nursing a tight back.
Simply put, Tiger is on the clock and missing majors, like this year’s cancelled Open Championship, only narrows that window. He still has two majors before his next birthday in December, but the uncertainty of COVID remains.
“We've never had a schedule like this before,” he said. “No one has ever experienced this, having a shutdown during the year. No one has played competitively trying to figure out how we're going to deal with the restrictions, the policies that are on board, the adjustments that we've made as the Tour has come back.”
Everyone has been forced to roll with the pandemic punches, but for Tiger, 2020 is looking like a late-career opportunity missed.