LOS ANGELES – The drama Friday at the Genesis Invitational wasn’t unfolding at the top of the leaderboard.
There were two more days to hash that out.
No, like usual, it centered around Tiger Woods, as his iron play became sloppier, his putter got colder and his position on the leaderboard hurtled toward – gulp – the cut line.
Full-field scores from The Genesis Invitational
Ah, yes, the cut has become a hot topic in recent months. It’s officially been placed on the Endangered List as the PGA Tour looks to make its product as entertaining as possible as it wards off an existential threat in LIV Golf.
One of the options apparently being considered is to eliminate the 36-hole cut for the top 65 and ties at some of the Tour’s $20 million designated events.
The idea has plenty of merit: Players would enjoy the guaranteed pay, of course, as well as a more streamlined setup at events with less range traffic and tee-sheet congestion. Viewers and on-site spectators would benefit, too, with their favorite players – the best players in the world, the biggest draws – all ensured to stick around for the weekend, when coverage draws about seven times more ratings than early rounds.
The Tour has always hosted a handful of no-cut events on the schedule, but they’ve come under renewed scrutiny with the advent of LIV Golf and its no-cut, 54-hole events.
“A cut is still very important at the pinnacle of the game – it separates the field – but it depends what we’re trying to do with the Tour week-in and week-out,” Rory McIlroy told me last fall. “As an entertainment product, to keep the talent there as long as possible at the venue, especially throughout the weekend, it’s a better thing for the Tour.”
Over the past few months McIlroy’s stance has softened, but only slightly. “I think there’s some tournaments more than others that lend themselves to maybe having cuts and trying to keep some history there, like the old L.A. Open here,” he said earlier this week at Riviera. “Is this an event that maybe should keep a cut going forward? Potentially, because of the history of it. So we’re thinking about all that sort of stuff. There’s a lot of conversation around it.”
And there’s no simple answer to the Tour’s conundrum. There’s no way to appeal to sponsors and spectators and viewers without undermining an integral component of competitive Tour golf, at least to some degree.
Deep down, the possibility of more no-cut tournaments has to be especially unsettling for someone like Woods, who, sure, mopped up in the old World Golf Championships, but he also took immense pride in his historic made-cut streak that extended to 142-consecutive events between 1998 and 2005. Of all of his extraordinary achievements, that one might be the most unbreakable. (The current Tour leader is Jon Rahm … with 24 in a row.) Woods played the weekend even when his swing was off, and when his putter didn’t cooperate, and when he was victimized by bad breaks. He played the weekend even when he was sick, and when he was distracted, and when he was in a foul mood.
He loved the grind. The fight. The satisfaction of advancing even when he wasn’t at his best. Fans responded, too: Absent a victory, there were few things more exhilarating than a Tiger cut-line sweat.
That's the scenario that played out Friday at Riviera, and it was as dramatic as ever.
In the opening round, Woods had thrilled the crowd by birdieing the last three holes to sign for a 2-under 69 in his first competitive appearance in seven months. But this was a new day. With only 14 hours to recover between rounds, Woods and his reconstituted right leg underwent hours of ice and treatment, then a morning gym session, then an hourlong warmup in 45-degree temperatures.
Though still capable of momentary greatness (including a near-ace on the 14th), it became clear midway through the round that it’d be an almighty struggle to the clubhouse.
There was a 10-foot par save on 2.
Then a touchy up-and-down from behind the green on 3.
Then another clutch 10-footer on the fourth hole to stay at 2 under par, two shots above the projected cut line.
The tension ratcheted up on the sixth hole, his 15th of the day, where Woods misjudged the wind and his tee shot failed to carry the ridge, rolling all the way back to the front-right edge. The only problem: The pin was in the back-left quadrant, protected by the sunken bunker in the middle of the green, and Woods took a few minutes to sort out his options, initially pulling wedge but ultimately deciding on putter. With a firm rap, his ball raced up the hill but took a sharp-right turn, nosediving into the sand. He splashed out and – barely – snuck in his 5-footer for bogey.
Still, with two holes to play, the odds remained in Woods’ favor. At least that was the case until his tee shot on 8 found the deep fairway bunker down the left side. From there he had little choice but to splash out 25 yards down the fairway, leading to another bogey.
Now, the pressure was on – the kind of now-or-never pressure that can only be found in an event with a 36-hole cut, with the prospect of going home if you don’t perform. Woods needed a par to be safe. A bogey-5 would leave him with an uncomfortable five-hour wait with the afternoon wave still to play under clear blue skies.
After finding the right rough on his final hole, Woods had just 156 yards to a flag that was tucked on the extreme right side. The play appeared straightforward – 30 feet left, in the center of the green – but he made another wrong call on the wind, his ball plugging in the sand 20 yards short of the green.
Justin Thomas spotted the dreadful lie immediately. He turned toward caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and muttered, “Fried …,” and Woods quick-played his bunker shot, slashing his ball onto the back fringe. In the course of an hour, his gutsy work now appeared for naught.
Needing to hole his chip shot for par, Woods delicately plopped his ball onto the collar, then watched it turn left, track toward the cup, take a peek over the right edge and … lip out.
“Darn …,” Thomas whispered, appearing even more dejected than his famous playing partner.
Having wrapped up his Friday 74, Woods trudged up the steep hill toward the clubhouse, wondering if his 1-over 143 would be enough. Fans cheered each labored step, hoping he’d be around for another two days. The website Data Golf, running its various models, pegged his chances to make the weekend at 74%, but that seemed like little solace in the moment.
“I just hit bad putts,” he said, “and obviously had a very bad finish, too.”
Woods headed into the clubhouse for lunch, and to begin his treatment, and to sweat out a cut line that for so many years was an afterthought.
Playing in the group behind Woods, Collin Morikawa remarked at the muted LA vibe for the weekday rounds.
“I’m a little shocked there weren’t more people out there,” Morikawa said.
What he didn’t know was that Saturday at Riviera was expected to be a sellout.
They had banked on seeing golf’s biggest star – and not just in his hosting duties.