LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The storyline coming into the PGA Championship was this: Tiger Woods is done. Battling age and infirmity, he is heading toward obsolescence.
And then Wednesday afternoon happened.
Woods not only showed up at Valhalla Golf Club after two days of treatment for an injured back, he commanded the biggest practice-round crowd I've ever seen. This looked more like Sunday than Wednesday.
The gallery was about 10 deep around the No. 1 tee when Woods showed up there shortly after 2 p.m. to play with Davis Love III, Steve Stricker and Harris English. Woods gave them what they wanted to see: a piped drive of more than 300 yards into the fairway that left him an easy iron to within 12 feet of the flag. He didn't bother reading the putt or having caddie Joe LaCava pull the pin before rolling the ball to the left of the cup and then moving on to chip from off the front left of the green.
None of this confirmed that Woods will play well when the going gets real Thursday morning. All of this confirmed that even now, at this crisis point in his career, Tiger Woods is by far the biggest draw in golf and one of the biggest in all of sports. He isn't done as an icon, that's for sure.
When the news broke around noon that Woods was indeed going to show up here after nearly 72 hours of doubt, it broke with ferocity. It was as if the rolling Kentucky bluegrass hills had been dusted with adrenaline.
The Golf Channel broke into its PGA coverage and sent a reporter to stake out Woods' reserved parking spot in the players' lot. Camera men scurried to the clubhouse to record his arrival. At one point during the vigil, defending PGA champion Jason Dufner walked out and passed in front of the phalanx of photographers awaiting Tiger. Not a single shutter clicked at the sight of Dufner, who walked around the battery of cameras. (An onlooker greeted Dufner with "play well," and he stared straight at the well-wisher without responding. Charming.)
At about 1:15 p.m. ET, Woods pulled his Mercedes-Benz courtesy SUV into his parking space with LaCava riding shotgun. Woods changed into his golf shoes in the parking lot and reported directly to the driving range, crisply smacking drives deep down the range. He wasn't really swinging out of his Nike shoes – especially by the standards of Woods' famously violent swing – but he appeared to have full range of motion and no obvious signs of discomfort.
Woods' arrival and apparent readiness to answer the bell for his 8:35 a.m. ET Thursday tee time was a gift to the golf fans who have bought every available PGA ticket, and for the networks televising the event. But now comes the hard part: playing like a contender and not a has-been.
He is a drastically different man and athlete than the guy who was last at Valhalla in 2000. That Tiger Woods was an artist in his prime, completing what may have been the greatest season of golf in history.
Woods had laid waste to historic Pebble Beach and even more historic St. Andrews to win the U.S. and British Opens in jaw-dropping romps. Then he came here and found himself in a riveting Sunday duel with obscure Bob May. The record book says Woods won all 14 of his majors playing from ahead on Sunday, but the record book fibs – May quickly seized the lead that day, and poured relentless pressure on Woods on the back nine.
Playing together, May had the honor off the tee most of the back nine and kept hitting great shots. Woods kept matching them. Both men birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff, and with wife Elin amid the massive gallery, Woods famously chased in his birdie putt on the first of three playoff holes for what proved to be the winning advantage.
He'd won three majors in a row, and would go on to complete the "Tiger Slam" next April by capturing the Masters. The dominance looked like it would never end.
It did, of course. There was the broken leg at Torrey Pines in 2008, the first significant crack in his titanium armor. Then the fire hydrant wreck in his neighborhood one year later, which sent his messy personal life spilling out into public view and ultimately led to his divorce. And now, this year, the back surgery that kept him out of both the Masters and U.S. Open.
The 38-year-old Woods looks like the 24-year-old who was here last, but he doesn't play like him anymore. He's no longer the most dazzling driver in the game. No longer the most dialed-in iron striker. No longer the clutch putter.
Most of all, he is no longer the golfer with the unbreakable will and insuperable focus. The man who won every mind game now seems to doubt himself on the biggest stages and in the most pressurized moments.
When Woods withdrew in Akron Sunday with the back injury, the career obituaries started coming in. Six years since his 14th and last major win, the question has stopped being whether he will break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 – it was downsized to whether he'll ever win one more.
It's a legitimate question. No longer feared by the competition and able to instill doubt in their minds, he's just another guy at this point.
That may change if Woods returns to full health, but the operative words there are "may" and "if." His inevitability has been replaced by uncertainty.
The odds of Woods missing the cut here may be better than the odds of him winning the tournament. That's how much times have changed from the halcyon days of 2000.
But if you don't think Tiger Woods still moves the needle like no other golfer and few other athletes on the planet, you should have seen the scene at Valhalla Wednesday.
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- Tiger Woods