Tiger’s Bellerive memories: 9/11 and a different type of long drive

By Art Spander

ST. LOUIS — The drive was a literal one for Tiger Woods, in a car — the only transportation available in a country that had shut down all flights — and it turned out one that provided time for thought.

The PGA Championship, the 100th, begins Thursday at Bellerive Country Club, just west of the Mississippi River. They’ve had previous majors at Bellerive, the 1965 U.S. Open, and the 1978 PGA.

Yet it was a tournament they didn’t have at Bellerive that remains meaningful for Woods.

And, in a way, America.

The 2001 American Express Championship, cancelled because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Tuesday of tournament week, the day that Tiger would play a practice round with Mark Calcavecchia, at virtually the same time several hundred miles to the northeast, jets were being crashed into the Twin Towers in New York.

The tournament could not go on. Woods was one of the millions unable to travel by air. On Wednesday, September 12, he drove 17 hours back to Florida. “It was a very surreal time, at least for me for me anyways,” said Woods.

A surreal time, and a time for reflection. On that trip Woods made the decision to revise the purpose of the Tiger Woods Foundation, shifting from an emphasis on golf — “a traveling circus,” said Tiger — to an emphasis on education. “And behold, we have 53 different curriculums.”

Woods has yet to play a competitive round at Bellerive. He missed the 2008 BMW, qualifier for the FedEx Cup, after his knee went out in the U.S. Open. “Yeah,” he said Tuesday, “I literally hadn’t stepped foot on the golf course since the week in 2001.”

And the footsteps he finally took were soggy and limited. One of those massive Midwest thunderstorms hit the region in late morning, suspending play and closing the course to spectators for several hours.

This is the new Tiger, the pro who at 43, after the back surgeries and rehab, is at least back as a golfer — “I’m blessed,” he insisted — if not as a front runner.

While he’ll always be a competitor, one wonders if he still should be called competitive.

He made a run, yes, at the British Open two and a half weeks ago, and then had a good start at last week’s Bridgestone, but at the end, where we used to find Woods at the top, he is fifth or sixth or 15th.

His presence will always be a factor. There’s only one Tiger, even if it’s not the Tiger we once knew.

“When I was playing well there for over a better part of a decade,” said Woods, when asked about preparation then and now, “it was the same thought process. The whole idea was to try and get a feel for the golf course and how it’s playing that week, but more than anything to make sure I was fresh and ready to go on Thursday.”

Yet being ready does not necessarily mean being productive. He’s not the golfer he used to be, which even for a superstar who arguably was one of the greatest ever is a matter of growing older.

His scoring average on the back nine in recent tournaments is a stroke higher than on the front nine. “I wish I could figure it out,” said Woods. “I don’t know what it is. If I had an answer, I would give it to you. But I really don’t know.”

What we all know is that in recent majors, even when Woods has a burst reminding us of his play of some 15 years ago, there’s one bad swing — the 3-iron at the 10th hole at Carnoustie leading to the double-bogey — or one missed putt.

Still, two years ago he wouldn’t even have been in the field.

“Well, just the fact that I’m playing the tour again — to have the opportunity again — it’s a dream come true,” said Woods. “I said this many times this year. I didn’t know I could do this again. And lo and behold, here I am.”

Here he is, for a real round at Bellerive. Finally.


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