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8:23PM

For Tiger, was it a last hurrah or a hint of the future?

By Art Spander

ST. LOUIS — Who knows where it goes from here? In a way, who cares? This might have been a last, wonderful hurrah for Tiger Woods, the PGA Championship in the humidity and enthusiasm of Middle America.

Or maybe it was a hint about a future that, at moments, could make us remember his past.

But it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for the game and for the golfer, is that for a week there were reminders of the way it used to be.

And a year ago, who dared imagine that would be possible? Not even Tiger.

Three weeks ago, he stirred emotions by working his way into the lead on the final day of the British Open before slipping to sixth, which was impressive, all things considered.

Then, here at Bellerive, green, lush and water-logged, so different from the links in Scotland, Woods played an even better major.

He shot 64 on Sunday, the final round of the 100th PGA Championship, and had the enormous crowd engaged and hopeful — and, of course, cheering loudly. The roar after a Tiger birdie rumbled across the fairways almost to the banks of the Mississippi.

The tournament in the end would belong to Brooks Koepka, who with a second major in a single calendar year, after the U.S. Open, and a third major overall, including consecutive Opens, right now may be the best golfer on the globe.

He has the long game and, perhaps more importantly, the short game and the poise. Koepka finished with a 4-under-par 66 for a 16-under total of 264, to win by two shots over, yes, Tiger Woods. Welcome to 2000.

Woods closed with a 6-under-par 64. He was holing putts and pumping his fist — and pumping up the fans. He dropped a long one at 18. He was a contender. He finished ahead of Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, British Open winner Francesco Molinari and Jordan Spieth, who in our tendency to exaggerate we’ve called the next Tiger Woods.

Ahead of everyone except Koepka.

But it was the former and current Tiger Woods who made this PGA thrilling. And surprising.

Woods was a question after the two back surgeries, the second to fuse a part of his spine. He needed to change his swing. He was 43, coming off months of inactivity and rehabilitation.

“At the beginning of the year, if you would say, yeah, I have a legitimate chance to win the last two major championships,” Woods conceded, “with what swing? I didn’t have a swing at the time. I had no speed. I didn’t have a short game. My putting was OK.

“But God, I hadn’t played in two years, so it’s been a hell of a process for sure.”

There’s a sporting axiom that greatness is forever. Age and injury may have an effect on performance, but a champion is always a champion. Tiger, we found out in the last few weeks, is still Tiger. In the hunt, he’s a factor.

What is different is this Tiger smiles and slaps hands with spectators, as he did walking up the ramp from the 18th green. We didn’t know if he would be back. He didn’t know. They say you don’t appreciate something until you don’t have it.

What Woods had during the PGA, especially the captivating last round, was a belief that this is where he belonged, high on the leader board, and striding purposely toward a goal that so many doubted ever would be attainable. It was fun. For him. For everyone.

“Oh, you could hear them,” Woods said of the fans. “They were loud, and they stayed around. It’s been incredible with the positiveness. They wanted to see some good golf, and we produced some good golf, I think, as a whole. The energy was incredible.”

It flowed from Brooks Koepka, from Adam Scott and most of all from Tiger Woods.

“I’m in unchartered territory,” said Tiger about his game, “because no one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it. I’m very pleased at what I’ve done so far. Going from where I’ve come to now in the last year, it’s been pretty cool.”

As they used to yell, you’re the man.

8:20PM

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.

 

10:05AM

Tiger’s thoughts about winning this British: ‘Who knows?’

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland—Who knows? That was the question asked by Tiger Woods. Of himself.

  Who knows if Tiger, well past his 43rd birthday, is able to win this 147th British Open? Is able to win any golf tournament, major or not?.

  Who knows if the weather, warm, inviting for all Great Britain, indeed for most of Western Europe, will hold for another week or instead with wind and rain turn the Open into the challenge it was meant to be.

  For a while, at St. Andrews, then at Hoylake, Tiger Woods owned the Open, shooting record scores. But that was then, before the emergence of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Before the back surgeries, which made Woods a spectator instead of an entrant.

   Now, at Carnoustie, “Car-nasty,”  north of St. Andrews, across the Firth of Tay, in Angus, Woods returns to the Open after an absence of two years, a man of experience and doubt, not a favorite but still the focus,

   To ESPN, he’s the only man on the course, any course, any event. To both the purist and the casual fan he’s the eternal unanswered query: “Is Tiger Woods going to win another major?”

   The sarcastic response would be, not with Brooks Koepka or Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas in the field. But golf is different than any sport except bowling. There’s no defense. The only effect you have on an opponent is psychological.

   Tiger was on the media room stage Tuesday, facing the skeptics, who as every tournament he plays-- the Open, which starts Thursday is his 12th of 2018—wonder how much trust should be placed on Woods’ chances. How’s his swing? More importantly, how’s his confidence?

“Each tournament I keep coming back to,” Woods said, perhaps as much to persuade himself as anyone, “I keep feeling a little bit better because I’m starting to play golf again. My feels are much better than they were at the beginning of the year.

 “I have a better understanding of my game and my body and my swing, much more so than I did at Augusta.”

That’s the Masters, in April, where he tied for 32nd.  Two months later, the U.S. Open, at Shinnecock Hills, a more punishing course than Augusta National, Woods missed the cut, but so did Spieth, McIlroy and Sergio Garcia.

    A couple after  that, the Quicken Loans event, Tiger tied for fourth.

  He’s changed putters for the British. He’s modified his swing, if only slightly. Everything, he insisted, is a little better. It should be by the middle of July, after weeks on different courses in different locations.

  “I’ve put myself up there in contention a couple of times,” said Woods. “I just need to play some cleaner golf and who knows?”

   The Open is links golf, always played on the hard, fast fairways of linksland, along the coasts of Britain  that thousands of years ago were under the Atlantic Ocean or North Sea.

  It is golf played along the ground, with balls rolling forever, golf that demands creativity, golf Tiger said he relishes, hitting a low-running iron 250 t0 300 yards, golf that enables an older player such as Tom Watson in 2009 at Turnberry when he was 59 and lost in a playoff, to keep up with the young guns.

“I’ve always loved playing links golf,” said Woods. “Feel has a lot to do with winning the Open. I think the guys traditionally over the years who have done well have been wonderful feel players and because it can be difficult to get the ball close, wonderful lag putters.”

   Guys like Watson, who won five Opens; guys like Gary Player, who won three, including here at Carnoustie in 1968; and guys like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros won two apiece.

  “There definitely were points in time,” said Woods referring to his post-surgical recovery, “I thought I’d never play in this championship again. Watching it on TV is great, but it’s better in person. I remember how it feels to come down to the last hole with a chance to win. “

  Will he ever have that feeling again? As he said, who knows?

6:02PM

The Open: Tiger won’t win; Dustin probably will

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Halfway through a U.S. Open low in excitement and high in scoring, two assumptions are possible: Tiger Woods definitely will not win and Dustin Johnson probably will.

Neither could be considered a surprise.

Woods unquestionably was once the best golfer in the world. That was then, before aging and injuries. This is now, when Johnson could be considered the best golfer in the world. If nothing else, he’s No. 1 in the world rankings.

And after 36 holes at Shinnecock Hills Country Club, way out on Long Island, he’s in first place of this 118th Open by four strokes, at 4-under 69-67-136, the only player under par.

Woods was tied for 86th place, meaning nowhere, because only the low 60s and ties made the cut to play in the final two rounds. Tiger wasn’t bad in Friday’s second round (stop asking, “compared to whom?”). He shot a 2-over 72. If only he hadn’t shot 78 on Thursday.

That’s when, asked about his mindset after a round that included a triple bogey and two doubles, Woods advised, “Shoot something in the 60s (Friday) and I’ll be just fine.”

He didn’t and he wasn’t. That’s what happens in sports. You can plan, you can practice, but in the end you have to produce. 

Tiger produced for years. Now the production is from Johnson, trying for his second Open championship in three years. “Dustin,” said Woods, grouped with Johnson, “was in complete control of what he’s doing.”

Such a glorious feeling in golf. In life. For everything to go the way we want it, if only for a brief while. Yet bliss can end in the blink of an eye.

In football, the line is you’re always one play away from an injury. In golf, you’re one swing away from disaster — or from success.

Johnson is well aware. He led another U.S. Open, in 2010 at Pebble Beach, and in the final round, his drive on two landed in a bunker. The next thing he and we knew, Dustin went triple bogey, double bogey, bogey on two, three and four, respectively, losing six shots like that and blowing himself out of the tournament.

What Ian Poulter did on Friday at Shinnecock wasn’t quite as severe, but it was no less unfortunate. One shot behind at eight, his 17th hole of the round, Poulter went into a bunker on his approach, bladed the sand shot and took a triple bogey. Then he bogeyed nine.

“It looks really stupid,” Poulter said of his mis-hitting. “I felt stupid knifing the first one. I felt even more stupid chunking the next one. And I didn’t do much better on the next one either.”

A humbling game, golf. Such a harsh description. Such an honest description. Tiger Woods? Five amateurs had lower scores for two rounds in this Open than Tiger. One of them, Matt Parziale, is a fireman in Brockton, Mass. He made the cut.

What a strange Open his has been, with the stars making bogies and double bogies — but Phil Mickelson at least made the cut; Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy did not — the weather turning from light morning wind and rain to late afternoon stillness and sunshine.

Johnson went off the 10th tee at 8:02 a.m. EDT with Woods and Justin Thomas. Conditions were less than ideal. Yet when you’re playing well, the weather is secondary. You just hit and march on.

“Starting out,” said Johnson, “through our first seven or eight holes it was breezy and overcast. So it felt like the course was playing really difficult. But I got off to a nice start. I kind of hung in there and made some good saves for pars.”

Woods, 42, had years of success. He believes he’ll find it once more, which is understandable, if not quite realistic. His putting, once magnificent, now is best described as mediocre. And there’s no record of a golfer who became a better putter as he got older.

“You don’t win major championships,” said Woods, who has won 14, “by kind of slapping all over the place and missing putts. You have to be on.”

Which is why, while others play the last two rounds, he’s off.

 

9:10PM

Tiger, Phil, Rory, Jordan battered at the Open; welcome to the past

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Welcome to the past. Welcome to the days when the U.S. Open was full of double bogies and angry faces, when the greens were as slick as a con man running a street corner crap game and players almost could lose a ball while inexorably they were losing strokes.

Sure, some people didn’t fall victim. Four golfers were even under par in Thursday’s first round at historic Shinnecock Hills, which is so far out on Long Island it seems nearer to London than Manhattan.

But they were only at 1-under, so the four, with scores of 69, Scott Piercy, Ian Poulter, Russell Henley and Dustin Johnson, shared the lead.

But that was just four golfers out of 156. On opening day, when usually at least a dozen — occasionally a dozen and a half — break par. And other than Johnson, Open winner in 2016 at Oakmont, none of the four would be labeled a marquee attraction — like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

Those guys could be found stomping around in the rough that makes America’s golfing championship the test it can be. They also could be found way, way down the scoreboard, although not as far down as Scott Gregory, a 23-year-old Englishman who having won the British Amateur two years ago upped and turned pro. Oops.

Gregory, with 10 bogies, three double-bogies, two triple-bogies and only three pars, shot a 22-over 92, the highest score in a U.S. Open in 16 years and sighed, “I didn’t get it off the tee.”

He meant onto the fairway. On a day when the wind blew in off the neighboring Atlantic, some of the more accomplished and better known golfers had the same problem.

In the morning, three of the game’s more famous competitors, Mickelson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, were grouped — and were battered, Mickelson shooting a 7-over 77 and coming in lowest among the threesome.

Spieth had his worst Open round ever, a 78, and McIlroy, with seven bogies, three double bogies and three birdies, shot 80.

Tiger, with an afternoon tee time, began with a triple-bogey 7, botched a comeback with consecutive double-bogies at 13 and 14 and shot an 8-over 78.

At least Woods talked after his misfortunes. So give him points for that even if his game was less than impressive.

“It was tough out there, but you shouldn’t make two doubles in a row,” said Woods. “It was frustrating because I hit the ball well. A four-putt. For most of the day, I didn’t putt well.”

Mickelson, who needs an Open for a career grand slam, and McIlroy, who lacks the Masters for his slam, signed their cards and silently slipped away — if silently is an accurate description when fans are hollering for autographs.

Spieth, who has won the Masters, U.S. and British Opens — clever grouping, huh, three guys one short of history — did speak post-round, if for someone who normally explains everything and anything, with uncharacteristic brevity.

“Very difficult,” said Spieth. “Got it off to a good start. It was hard after that. You just have to stay patient and understand that you are going to shoot four-over par once you are four-under through two holes.

“I tried to do too much on the second hole, and it kind of bit me. From there it was kind of a grind. There were certainly some dicey pins, but at the same time there were guys under par. So I could have played better.”

That’s a comment that used to be heard at Opens, where even-par or higher was the eventual winning score. In 1974, seven-over par was good enough on another New York course maybe 100 miles from Shinnecock. That led to a championship for Hale Irwin and a book about the struggle, Massacre at Winged Foot, by the late Dick Schaap.

Things were less severe after that. In fact, for a while the Open didn’t quite look like the Open.

But it did on Thursday, with tough conditions and high scores.

And you were reminded of a comment by Tony Lema, the Oakland kid who became a winner. “The Masters,” said Lema, comparing, “is fun. The U.S. Open is work.”

As it should be.