PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods stepped to his 11-foot putt on the iconic 17th green here, eyed it for a while, and then left it six inches short. A raspy voice rang out from the gallery.
“Come on, Tiger! Back in the day you would have made that! OLD MAN!”
The shout wasn’t as jarring for its hostility as for its clarity. The island green at The Players Championship is one of the loudest spots in golf, with grandstands nearly all around. Woods seems to carry noise with him everywhere he walks, and yet this heckling was so loud that people elsewhere in the crowd craned to get a look at the angry man with the smoker’s wheeze.
The galleries were packed on Friday, the air was still, the sun was out, and yet it felt oddly quiet in the orbit of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler – arguably the three most popular players in the sport. Mickelson and Fowler are going home after poor performances. Woods will survive to the weekend with his 1-under after two rounds, but without any of the usual fanfare. He’s 14 strokes back of Webb Simpson, who tied the course record 63 on Friday.
The fact that he’s even swinging a club is a mini-miracle after back surgery last year, yet these two days here were nearly completely devoid of the famous “Tiger Roar” that used to be so expected during every round.
Notwithstanding the inspiring comeback he’s made, it’s hard not to wonder how many more Tiger Roars there will be.
“I can’t put in the hours I used to, and it’s part of being 42 as well,” Woods said after his round, with a plaintive smile.
It’s a healthy thing for a hard-charging man who wants to be an active dad. It’s also a little bit sad for a legend who used to be able to mentally bend any course to his will.
The course hasn’t had to do much to match wits with the legend this week. There was hardly any mystery at all: expected pin placements, dry grass that offered more length off the tee, light breezes and plenteous rays. It was in “perfect shape,” Woods said. There were 6-unders on the leaderboard before Woods teed off on Thursday, and he could look up to see 9- and 10-unders when he finished Friday. The cutline was under par, which is kind of crazy. The course was vulnerable and Woods simply didn’t do much with it. There were some blistering drives, but few laser-like approaches and few seeing-eye putts.
“I didn’t have much of what I wanted,” he said.
When Woods has it rolling, his galleries collect people on each hole like a snowplow. One good shot ratchets up the buzz, and fans hustle to the next spot to see the payoff. Some rush to the fairway to get a better look at him, and some hurry to the next green to see the most dramatic shot. When that dramatic shot falls, the crowd erupts and the sound carries. Then fans gather up their folding chairs and shuffle to the next hole, as to avoid missing out on anything Tiger related.
On Friday, though, a lot of fans just stayed where they were.
Woods is happy with his year, despite the loss of the momentum from March. He reminds reporters, “This is still new.” He is indeed a golfer reborn, and the feel of the perfect shot is still somewhat foreign to him. He can’t quite shape a lot of his shots the way he’d like. Some of the battle is trying to do so, and some of the battle is accepting when he can’t. After some wayward putts he will offer a half-smile and on some, like the 42-footer that just missed the cup at 8 on Friday, he’ll close his eyes and look momentarily exhausted. He is somewhere between glad to be back and frustrated to not be back.
In one sense, it works out fine. Crowds this weekend can watch the legend in the morning and the leaders in the evening. The tour is delighted to have him for the next couple of days, especially with Phil and Rickie out. But outside this part of Florida, the tournament will likely be just another item on the scroll at the bottom of the screen.
Even if he doesn’t play another round this year, 2018 has still been hugely successful for Woods. For it to be a smash, though, he has to string some holes together, ideally some days together. The momentum of his game has to tumble downhill, rather than just rumbling along. It’s hard to know if his physical and mental games will conspire to make that happen.
After Woods nearly hit into a grandstand on 16, he slammed his club into the ground and began to trudge slowly after his shot. Then someone yelled, “Tiger you’re still a beast!”
Maybe, but how soon ’til we see the beast again?
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