It was on Tiger Woods’ seventh hole, or somewhere around his second or third shirt of the opening round of the BMW Championship, that I knew I’d shown up for the right tournament.
After hitting his drive in the fairway on the par 5, he hit a 3-iron approach from 230 yards. The ball, which wasn’t easy to track through the haze, faded toward the pin for about a second before it became clear that it was on a perfect line. It would settle just over 5 feet from the cup. A few minutes later, he rolled it in for an eagle. Roars accompanied each stroke. The golfer, soaked, was pleased.
This eagle brought Woods to 5-under through seven holes. After his ninth hole, which he also birdied, a gaggle of writers decided to leave the pleasantly air-conditioned media tent to gawk at the greatest golfer who’s ever lived, who was somehow, after four back surgeries, in vintage form. Tiger had shot a 29 on his opening nine. How low would he go?
It was hard not to feel like I’d won the lottery. I’d come to the stately Aronimink Golf Course in suburban Philadelphia to cover, and take part in, the 42-year-old Woods’ struggle to get the first win of his latest, most dramatic, return to the pro tour. I hadn’t expected him to actually do it. He’d fallen into a familiar pattern in 2018, finding himself five or six strokes back after the first round and then slowly grinding his way up the leaderboard as the tournament progressed, close enough to get everyone’s hopes up, before stalling out on the back nine of the final round. But what if this week, with all facets of his game working, he pummeled everyone in the field, like he had at the 2000 U.S. Open? What if the week when I happened to be following Tiger inside the ropes was the week when he cemented one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history?
Like most of the golfers Woods was playing against at Aronimink, I’d grown up watching him dominate the sport. Unlike those golfers, I wanted him to get back to crushing the competition after eight years in a wilderness of personal and medical problems. None of the players I’d resigned myself to rooting for during this blackout period—the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth—could match the thrill of a run from Tiger Woods. Please just beat them, Tiger. Beat them all.
I kept thinking that I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I got ahead of myself. He was going to shoot a 58, at least, and there would be an impromptu dance party on the final green, with champagne. Dozens of people would collapse from heat exhaustion, and they wouldn’t regret a thing.
Or … Woods would have a solid but not spectacular back nine to post a 62, his best opening round of the year, and tie for the overnight lead with McIlroy. It was that rare round where the two most inconsistent elements of his game this season, his driving and putting, were both spot on. Striping the ball off the tee allowed him to attack the greens with his approach shots, the best on tour this season, and then he just needed to make a few putts. It was an easy, and replicable, 62.
Four very rainy days and one particularly horrifying putting display later, I would revert to my original assignment of covering the struggle. Dammit.
But on that Thursday in Philadelphia, it was hard to imagine that this week wouldn’t be The Week. It was all working. He had been building to this. His knee was fine; his back was fine; his personal life was under control. It was time for golf to put its Justin Roses and Brooks Koepkas back in the toy chest and resume the show that had been interrupted on Thanksgiving weekend of 2009.
The sweat was still dripping from Woods’ hat and nose as he spoke to reporters after the first round, just a few feet away from a penned-in circle of screaming kids waiting to get his autograph. (No, I was not one of them.) A reporter asked him what part of his game needed work after a round in which each component seemed to be dialed in.
“Everything,” Woods said.
Pray no one ever looks at you the way Tiger Woods looks at a golf ball that’s come to rest unfavorably in a crater of a fairway divot. One hand on the hip, head motionless. The golf ball has disappointed him, ruining his expertly shaped drive. There is nothing the ball can do to make up for this. It screwed with the history we were in the process of writing.
That was the bad break Woods caught off the tee during Friday’s second round, on the same 16th hole he’d eagled the day before. To dig the ball out of the ditch it was resting in, Tiger would have to cut across it with his fairway metal, producing a sharp left-to-right sidespin that prevented him from targeting the pin directly. He was able to two-putt for a workmanlike birdie.
I took a breath.
This came near the end of an even-par round of 70 during which Woods putted so badly that I felt I might be in danger of having my media credentials revoked, as my groans of Jesus … were coming out louder than intended. Thursday had been more fun.
It was a grinding slog of a round that made me wonder: Why was Tiger Woods even here?
It was his fifth tournament in six weeks near the end of his first full season in five years. His body and his surgically fused spine are not accustomed to all this walking and torquing. Woods admitted after his final round of the week that he wasn’t prepared to be playing this much golf this late in the season. “I need to start really lifting and getting after it and getting stronger in certain areas, because playing every single week—seems like every single day—is maintenance at this point,” he said. “A war of attrition.”
The BMW Championship is the third leg of the four-part PGA Tour Playoffs. Only the top 30 seasonlong points earners advance to the final leg, the Tour Championship, and Woods needed a decent showing in Pennsylvania to ensure he’d crack that field.
But the playoffs are still pretty much a joke to elite golfers. The system has been around only since 2007, and despite constant tinkering to make the playoffs “happen,” nobody really cares. Few, if any, pros would trade a major championship or Ryder Cup victory for the glory of the “FedEx Cup,” so the PGA Tour essentially bribes elite players into competing by offering outlandishly absurd purses—the winner of the FedEx Cup gets $10 million, set to increase to $15 million next year after the latest round of panicked fidgeting—and bonus world-ranking points.
In other words, if Woods had decided to skip some of the playoff events to preserve his energy for the Ryder Cup later this month, everyone would’ve understood. And yet here he was anyway, playing his third straight week and sweating like a crazy person. Why?
Perhaps because he wants that win more than even his fans do, and because he thought he was on the cusp of getting it. Just in August, he’d finished runner-up at the PGA Championship; had he not plunked his approach shot in the water on his second hole of the first round, he could’ve won it. Surely he’d get a big trophy at some point this year if he just kept playing, right?
But this gratification has been annoyingly slow to materialize. His game flattened out in the first couple of weeks following the thrill of the PGA: He tweaked his driver shaft and clubface in a way that allowed him to finally hit the ball consistently off the tee … only to stop making putts. He finished well off the pace at the first two playoff events, in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The only reasonable conclusion—one desperate amateur golfers have arrived at continually since the invention of the sport—was that this lousy putting was the putter’s fault. So at Aronimink, Woods made another equipment change. On Sept. 4, the media spotted him on the putting green sporting, for the first time in months, the most famous golf club on the planet: Woods’ engraved Scotty Cameron Newport 2 GSS putter. “The Scotty,” which Woods has kept in his bag most of the time since 1999 and wielded in 13 of his 14 major championship victories, is a holy item to golf-equipment nerds. (They are real, they are pathetic, and I am one of them.) Woods had switched it out following a dry spell late in the spring, but old faithful—an engraved silver wand that he won’t even let his kids touch—was now back, and it would surely guide him toward the finest putting performance of his career. It was time for fate to step in and guide this comeback to its inevitable and necessary conclusion. That was the sentiment in the press. But was Woods confusing sentimentality for reason, too?
Tiger made a total of three birdie putts in the second round, the longest of which was from 2 feet, 5 inches. The longest putt he made overall was a 6-foot par attempt on the first hole; the second-longest was a 3-foot-5-inch bogey on the last. In other words, he made only a couple of putts all day that were longer than a 5-year-old could knock in consistently. I wanted to grab the stupid Scotty and throw it in a pond.
Tiger made a few midrange putts in the third round but still missed a handful within 10 feet during a grim, 12-hole stretch of pars. Somewhere along that dry, ho-hum stretch, another member of the press remarked that watching Woods put the ball in the fairway and two-putt for par on hole after hole had made covering the great star about as alluring as following Zach Johnson: a fine player, and the epitome of boring golf. It was appropriately harsh.
Woods dropped out of the top 10 on the leaderboard heading into the weekend. He stayed well back of the leaders after an improved but still-frustrating third round, when he admitted he was relying on his caddie, Joe LaCava, to keep his temper under control. If only I’d had my own Joe LaCava out there, giving me pep talks about how it was all going to fall into place so long as I stayed patient.
During the height of his dominance in the 2000s, Woods would curse loudly when he hit bad shots. These outbursts didn’t alienate his fans or invite reprimands from sponsors. He dominated the sport and made everyone a lot of money. He didn’t need to be loved when he was awed. He could get away with being a jerk.
Having watched him up close at the BMW Championship, I believe he still curses after errant swings, but he doesn’t make as much of a show of it. Whether the word is fuck! or dammit! or God! it always sounds the same: a sharp, staccato syllable he tries to keep under his breath and away from the fluffy boom mics that follow him everywhere on the course.
Woods’ return has felt like it’s as much about reintroducing himself as an elder statesman as it is about reclaiming former glory. That means letting down his guard, if only a little, to the media and the fans, and accepting adoration over awe now that his age and reconstructed body have rendered awe obsolete. Who knows if Tiger Woods really is a kind person now—he plays the role of kind person well. Sure, I’ll take it, and so will the industry built around him. For the golf media, the little things—reciprocating a fist bump with a fan here or there, signing autographs for kids, and making himself available to the media after each round—are very big things. The TV networks are eager to inflate every small gesture of kindness into a narrative of how Tiger Has Changed.
He was cold then. Maybe he’s warmed up a little now. But all I could think about when I was following him for four days was that it makes total sense that he’d been so standoffish for all those years. The man has to put up with a lot.
The crowds were sparse on Thursday and Friday, by Woods’ standards. During Saturday’s jampacked third round, I figured out what had been going on. Everyone in the greater Philadelphia area had been watching, or attending, the Eagles’ season opener on Thursday night. On Saturday they were all at Aronimink, and they were all drunk.
Ticket sales (and prices at nearby hotels) spike when Woods commits to a tournament, and Saturday’s crowds at the BMW were an overwhelming audiovisual presentation of what the Tiger effect feels like in person. I must have heard “Ti-GER!” 10,000 times on Saturday, along with a thousand “Go birds!” chants, which were directed at Woods for no discernible reason. Spontaneous renditions of the more complicated “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” chant only broke out a couple dozen times. References to any of Woods’ controversies, including the Big One, have become increasingly rare as the years go on, but they are there. One guy couldn’t have been 20 feet from Woods when he shouted, “Let’s put 2-oh-9 behind us, baby.” Within seconds after hearing that reference to his sex scandal, which broke the record, previously held by 9/11, for most consecutive New York Post covers, Woods hit his drive on the 16th hole right down the middle.
Just after that drive, a fan standing an arm’s length from Tiger’s golf bag left his hand out for a high-five for long enough that it was becoming awkward not to reciprocate. Woods grinned and tossed his tee to the spectator. “I HAVE TIGER WOODS’ TEE! THIS IS TIGER WOODS’ TEE!” the man said. Tiger’s playing partners still had to hit.
On the tee box, Woods can’t see anything but what’s directly in front of him, as fans stand four or five deep in a semicircle around him. Jordan Spieth, one of Woods’ playing partners in the opening two rounds, told reporters on that scorching opening Thursday that it was even hotter playing with Woods because the packed rows of spectators block off air circulation.
Most golfers who are paired with Woods will say, diplomatically, that they enjoyed the experience. Sometimes that’s true. Tiger has played alongside some PGA Tour rookies this year, guys who were so excited that they asked Woods to pose for post-round photos with their families and friends. But once, as a bucket-list experience, is probably enough.
Spieth and Rickie Fowler, Woods’ playing partners Thursday and Friday, are stars in their own right and can handle mobs of fans. The experience was probably more unsettling for Ted Potter Jr. I can’t explain how it happened, but seemingly thousands of Philadelphians independently arrived at the observation that Potter shares a last name with a famous character from children’s literature. He would hear more and more variations of “You’re a wizard, P-P-Potter!” as the afternoon wore on and the Bud Light empties accumulated. Potter, who has one more tour win that Woods does this year, put up with it and turned in a solid score. But he was probably pleased not to be paired with Woods the next day.
So how does Tiger Woods deal with the pandemonium of playing in Tiger Woods’ pairing every round? Experience probably explains most of it. But there must also be a part of him that’s humbled. Each time he walks onto a golf course, he’s within close contact of thousands of strangers who have read intimate details about his sexual acts with untold numbers of mistresses. Perhaps, in the #MeToo and Trump eras, the whole episode seems quaint, since there were never any questions about him obtaining consent from his partners. Most of those strangers have also seen last year’s police report, which documented the episode in which he endangered others’ lives as he hit the rock bottom of an apparent drug dependency. They—we—love him still and want to watch him compete again. He puts up with the adoration because the adoration is what fuels him.
Still, if Woods acknowledged every little comment, he’d never make it off the first tee. There was a moment on the fourth hole of his second round, though, when there weren’t too many fans out yet. Woods was walking up the fairway to hit his second shot, and it was silent until a woman behind the rope line shouted, “Tiger, it’s been 20 years, baby, but you’re still looking great!” Everyone around her broke out in laughter.
Woods, holding his yardage book between his teeth, gave the slightest of grins.
He just had to go on an early run during the final round, getting my hopes up again. This guy.
No one at Aronimink on Monday morning could believe they were at Aronimink on Monday morning. The final round had been postponed on Sunday when the forecast of a 100 percent chance of rain for every hour of the day proved extremely accurate. The predicted forecast of rain all day on Monday, soaking an already-flooded course, signaled that the tournament would most likely be called after 54 holes. But the heaviest of the rain did, somehow, let up, and grounds crews armed with squeegees were able to get the fairways in playable condition. The tournament would go on.
And Woods would shoot a 32 on the front nine, bringing him within one stroke of the sluggish leaders. It was at this point that I, cushioning my own anticipated disappointment, began wondering how he would let it slip away this time.
It began with a drive blocked to the right and into a sand trap on the 10th hole, his only missed fairway of the day. That left him with a clean lie in the flat of the bunker and an unimpeded look at the hole, although his approach needed to carry the corner of a water hazard. His shot came out low. Way too low.
One of the joys of watching professionals in person is seeing them hit short irons and wedges. Television cameras don’t properly capture how the pros “flight” these shots: Even with high-lofted clubs, they keep the ball closer to the ground than they do with some of their long irons. The shots carry just enough spin that the ball skips once or twice before stopping in place.
But this was not that shot. Woods’ ball came in screeching, just clearing the water and not “skipping” so much as running hot off the back of the green. It took me a while to recognize, after the ball-striking display he’d put on all tournament, that he’d simply mishit the shot. I said to another reporter that I didn’t really understand the “play” of running the ball low over a water hazard and running it off the green.
“I think he just thinned the shit out of it,” the other reporter said.
“Maybe a groove low,” I said, trying and failing not to out myself as a measly part-time golf writer.
We walked to the green, where Woods couldn’t get up and down and submitted his first bogey since Friday.
That was just about that. Whatever. Time to get the hell out of the Philadelphia suburbs, he on a jet, me on a not-jet.
His 65 on Monday was still one of the best rounds of the day; it only seemed bad compared to my vision of a world-conquering 61, or a 57. He finished at 17-under, tied for sixth place, ensuring his first trip to the Tour Championship since 2013 and a distant chance to win the storied FedEx Cup.
He will win one of these tournaments, soon, just not the one that I skipped out of Washington to cover. Maybe it will be the Tour Championship this week, or the low-stakes Bahamas hit-and-giggle his foundation puts together in December. Something high-stakes—say, the Masters?—would work too. And at some point, hopefully, I’ll train myself not to expect him to return to the dominance of the 2000s but instead to appreciate each agonizing second of a comeback that’s already been greater than any of us peons deserve.