The consistency may have disappeared but the competitive edge remains for Tiger Woods. Frustrated at missing the cut at The Open, only the second time in his career he has done so at a major more than once in the same season, the former world number one remains defiant and determined, if somewhat pragmatic.
His famed powers of recovery are long gone. He knows it. His rivals know it. We know it. If he does not start well there is no coming back.
It was the case at Royal Portrush where an opening seven-over 78, battling his chronic back problems, did for his chances so that even an improved second-round 70 could not save him from a weekend off.
There is a train of thought that, with his physical health issues, the conditions an Open Championship throws up means he is unlikely to be in contention, unlike at the Masters where things are much more in his favour, as proved by his 15th major win in April.
Woods argues to the contrary, even if he accepts he is no longer the hero wearing the cloak of invincibility he did during 683 weeks as world number one in the first decade of the 21st century.
“It’s just a matter of being consistent. That’s one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you’re not going to be as consistent as you were at 23,” said Woods, who has had more back operations (four) than major triumphs (one) in the last decade.
“I’m going to have my hot weeks. I’m going to be there in contention with a chance to win – and I will win tournaments.
“But there are times when I’m just not going to be there and that wasn’t the case 20-some-odd years ago.
“I had a different body and I was able to be a little bit more consistent.”
On the flip side, winning one of four majors in the year, considering where Woods was not so long ago, now seems eminently acceptable.
And while a creaking 43-year-old body is probably giving him more problems than he will publicly admit, the competitive streak remains and he birdied the first from 30 feet to briefly hint at the prospect of a remarkable comeback.
Although the way he gingerly and slowly walked off the green told the real story.
As he warmed up he became more expansive, almost driving the 374-yard fifth and, after his second birdie of the day at the short sixth, he ripped a drive down the long seventh. More significantly it was dead centre.
Now he was purposefully striding off the tee to a background noise of howls and ‘Go Tiger’ shouts.
However, the utterances from Woods himself kept getting more desperate and informative as the hole played out with a trip into the gallery.
He knew his chances of salvaging anything were fading away and while the mind was willing the body was weak. But he keeps telling himself he can still do it and he will keep coming back – for now at least.
“I love just the stress of playing in a major,” he said.
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Tiger Woods headed straight for the physiotherapist after posting his worst first-round score at The Open.
The Masters champion, who is restricted by the four operations he has had on his back, knew as soon as he began warming up on the range around 2pm he was in for a testing day.
And the seven-over 78 he carded – which included just one birdie that did not arrive until the 15th hole – proved his point.
It was the 15-time major winner’s worst 18 holes at an Open since an 81 in round three at Muirfield in 2002, but he admitted there was little he could do about it and hoped treatment would get him in a better state for Friday.
“That’s about all I can do. Hopefully the body responds. That’s just the nature of the procedure that I had,” said Woods, who goes out again at 10.09am on Friday.
“I’m going to have days like this and I’ve got to fight through it. And I fought through it. Unfortunately I did not post a very good score.
“I’m sore. You’ve got to be spot on. These guys are too good. There are too many guys that are playing well and I’m just not one of them.”
Woods’ start was mixed to say the least as he found the left rough off the first tee, hit his approach into a bunker but managed to get up and down for par.
He admits that was about as good as it got and even his solitary birdie was celebrated with a sarcastic licking of his right index finger to chalk up a number one in the air.
“My warm-up wasn’t very good. I had a hard time moving and just trying to piece together a swing that will get me around a golf course,” he added.
“Then all of a sudden I made probably one of the best pars you’ve ever seen on one today. That was a pretty good start but it was kind of downhill from there.
“I hit a lot of missed shots, they were all left. I wasn’t hitting it solid. Everything was off the heel. I was just trying to scrape it around. The best I could do was seven-over.”
Woods had taken a month off after the US Open and had not played a competitive round ahead of the first round at Royal Portrush.
He spoke pre-tournament about having to manage his schedule in an attempt to sustain some longevity in what is left of his top-level career.
And he is having to come to terms with lower expectations and not necessarily being able to compete every time he tees it up like he did in the past.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult. I’m not 24 any more. Life changes, life moves on and I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to,” he said.
“I have to be realistic about my expectations and hopefully peaking at the right time.
“I peaked at Augusta well and hopefully I can peak a few more times this year.”
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Tiger Woods will favour quality over quantity in a bid to prolong his career after admitting he was emotionally and physically drained by his Masters triumph.
Woods told Jack Nicklaus “I’m done” at the Champions Dinner ahead of the 2017 Masters, but flew to London later that night to consult a specialist, subsequently underwent career-saving spinal fusion surgery and won his 15th major title at Augusta National in April.
The 43-year-old has played just 10 tournament rounds since, taking four weeks off before missing the cut in the US PGA Championship then finishing ninth in the Memorial Tournament and 21st in the US Open.
Woods went straight from Pebble Beach to Thailand on a family holiday and concedes his game is not as sharp as he would like ahead of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, but believes he has no option but to play a limited schedule.
“Getting myself into position to win the Masters, it took a lot out of me,” said Woods, who has had four knee operations and four back surgeries during his illustrious career. That golf course puts so much stress on the system.
“Then if you look at that leaderboard after Francesco (Molinari) made the mistake at 12, it seemed like seven, eight guys had a chance to win the golf tournament with only six holes to play.
“I was reading the leaderboard all the time trying to figure out what the number is going to be, who is on what hole. And it took quite a bit out of me.
“Seeing my kids there, they got a chance to experience the Open Championship last year after their dad took the lead and then made a few mistakes. And this time they got to see me win a major championship.
“Charlie was too young to remember when I won in Akron (in 2013) and Sam was one when I won at Torrey (2008 US Open). My mom was there and she had been in ’97 for my first win.
“So it was a very emotional week and one that I keep reliving. It’s hard to believe that I pulled it off and I end up winning the tournament.”
Woods has not been helped by a change to the calendar in 2019 which saw the Players Championship move to March and the US PGA switch from August to May, meaning there is a major championship each month from April to July.
And he has learnt his lesson from 2018 when he played 19 individual events and arrived in Paris for the Ryder Cup exhausted after his victory in the Tour Championship just hours earlier.
“Last year I played a little bit too much, the body was pretty beat up,” Woods added. “After I won in Atlanta you saw what I did at the Ryder Cup.
“I was worn out and unfortunately I didn’t contribute to the team at all in points and we end up losing. A lot of it was trying to qualify for certain events, trying to get me where my world ranking would get me in some of the bigger events.
“So this year I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule. I want to play here as long as I possibly can and you have to understand if I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long.”
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