Golf’s conversation piece as the final major of the season approaches no longer concerns the number 15. The question is not when Tiger Woods might bridge the major hiatus stretching back six years but when will he tee it up again in a meaningful way?
The recurrence of the back trouble that forced him on to the surgeon’s table in April rendered Woods barely able to put one foot in front of the other at the Bridgestone Invitational tonight. He required the use of a buggy to exit the course after hurting himself while playing out of the rough at the second. That is the kind of transport associated with old men past their prime.
The immediate conclusion to draw from Sunday's dramatic developments is that Woods came back to soon, allowing only three months to pass before he played competitive golf again at his own event, the Quicken Loans National. It took Graham De Laet of Canada almost 12 months of patient rehabilitation to compete again after undergoing a similar back procedure.
Woods said on Sunday the pain was spread across his whole lower lumber region. The best hope must be that he has indeed jumped the gun. That at least allows for the idea of an ultimate recovery over an appropriate period. Anything else takes him into entirely different territory and asks awkward questions about the viability of his career at 38. But let’s not rush into that scenario. This is Woods we are talking about.
The comeback has become a key feature of Woods’s later period. Each time he climbs off the deck he triggers among the golfing flock a fresh round of watchfulness so that we might get a handle on his prospects of chasing down Jack Nicklaus and that colossal bear hug that has held for 28 years, 18 major victories.
Even after this desperate twist Woods is not about to give up on that dream. He can’t swing like he used to but there have been few better in any sport at making do and mending. And what hasn’t changed is the iron will of a man standing over a ball with a putt to make.
Woods redefined the game in so many ways, ushering in hitherto unseen levels of athleticism and power. Though this was a significant factor in that five-year period from his first major win at the Masters in 1997 aged 21 to his eighth at the US Open in 2002, it was arguably not the feature of his game that made the most difference. That would be his ability to drain anything on the greens from 15 feet and in.
This involved both technical and mental mastery of the putting discipline. Woods asks us to believe that the latter quality has not deserted him. And if he is right and he does regain full health the major chase is back on. The cynic is, however, entitled to ask why we should listen anymore to this recurring item. The answer has to lie in the 14 trophies that line his cabinet and a track record in overcoming injury. This is all the evidence Woods needs.
Here he was after his third round at Akron on Saturday hitting the copy-and-paste button in answer to inquires about the health of his game. “I just need more reps. I’m getting my feel back. I’m hitting more shots pin high, right on the numbers. I just need to convert. If I putt normal the last two days, I shoot 2, 3 under par, no problem.”
Three years ago Woods stood in the same media compound and spoke optimistically as he worked through the swing changes he was making with new coach Sean Foley. The relationship was still developing but in his best Californian he told how he was hitting those “numbers” and loved the flight of his ball or “traj” (trajectory). All he needed was “reps”. The following week at the PGA Championship in Atlanta he missed only his third major cut as a pro. For many that was the end of the great Woods. Match reports read like obits. He was back among the ranks never to trouble the scorers again at a major championship.
The following year he won for the first time since his soon-to-be ex-wife planted a 7-iron in the back window of his Escalade on that fateful Thanksgiving night in 2009, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He followed that up with a win at Memorial, Jack’s tournament, a hugely symbolic victory that tied the 73 PGA Tour wins recorded by Nicklaus. Win number 74 would come at the AT&T later that year.
Woods was on the move again, taking pains to remind those who wrote him off how premature they were. Last year he won five times, including two World Golf Championship titles and The Players, the richest prize in golf. At this very point 12 months ago after a seven-shot win at the Bridgestone, during which he tied his PGA Tour best with a round of 61, the bookies had stopped taking bets on that 15th major triumph coming at Oak Hill seven days later. It didn’t and it hasn’t.
The closest Woods has come to crossing the 15th parallel was during that white-hot run 12 months ago. He had already won three times by April and had a share of the lead when he hit the pin at the 15th on the second day at the Masters. Had his ball not rolled back into Rae’s Creek setting in motion the illegal drop controversy, who knows what might have come to pass.
Woods was lasering the pins. His approach to 15 was too good, the unfortunate bounce a rum demonstration of the role caprice can play in determining outcomes. A birdie would have been the least of his returns had the ball done as it was bid and not come under the influence of the flag stick.
And so here we are again, witness to yet another test of fire. It remains to be seen who gets burned, Woods or his critics.