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Tiger missing cut no longer end of world

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 5/18/2019 Daniel Rapaport

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BETHPAGE, N.Y. — The old Tiger would’ve been bothered—by his inability to stick a wedge close for a birdie he needed, by missing the weekend at a major championship, and by doing it all alongside a guy who is sucking the life out of a golf tournament the way he used to suck life out of golf tournaments.

When we say the old Tiger, we speak not of prime Tiger—the all-business-all-the-time, stomp-on-your-throat marvel of competitiveness—we speak of the Tiger Woods of six weeks ago. The Tiger Woods who had been stuck on 14 majors for more than a decade. The Tiger Woods who had been listening to everyone say he could never win a major again. The Tiger Woods who hadn’t yet won the 2019 Masters, completing the most unlikely comeback and surprising even himself.

But this, post-major-15-Tiger? He wasn’t angry or salty or, it seemed, more than mildly annoyed after shooting 72-73 to miss the cut at the PGA Championship by as single stroke. He high-fived a few fans as he walked to the 18th tee, one shot outside the cut line. He answered an extra question from the media even after an official stepped in to end the Q&A session. He heaped praise on Brooks Koepka, suggesting he would add to his already-preposterous seven-stroke lead if he keeps playing like this.

Woods has a new perspective. You get the sense he will be less bothered by this professional failure than any professional failure of years past. “Anything past here will be gravy,” Woods famously said at the nadir of his injury woes. Anything past the 2019 Masters will be an extra serving of gravy.

Woods was asked after Friday’s round if he regretted not playing an event between the Masters and the PGA, or playing only nine practice holes at Bethpage this week.

“Definitely not,” he said, with an ear-to-ear smile. “I’m the Masters champion, and I’m 43 years old, and that’s a pretty good accomplishment.”

He took time to appreciate that pretty good accomplishment. He put the clubs away for a while, probably longer than he should have if the goal was playing as well as possible here. But that—competing as hard as possible, even if it means sacrificing life off the golf course—is no longer the one and only thing he thinks about. That green jacket, the one he never thought he’d win again, was enough validation for three lifetimes.

Woods’ performance this week will undoubtedly shock some people. He won the U.S. Open here in 2002 and finished T6 when the Open returned in ’09. He had never missed a cut in the major directly following one of his major triumphs. The last time we saw him, he was driving the ball on a string and firing every approach right at the flag. We assumed that was the new normal (again), even if it was absolutely unreasonable to expect a 43-year-old man with a fused back to sustain an elite level of performance for so long. But Woods has spent the past two decades doing absolutely unreasonable things on golf courses. There was ample precedent to suggest he’d continue stunting on the limitations normal people face. When he wins majors, he wins majors in bunches. Why would this time be any different?

His first hole of the tournament stuck a pin in that balloon of inflated belief.

Woods’ opening tee shot on Thursday only missed the fairway by a few yards, but it nestled in Bethpage’s ankle-high rough. He had no choice but to pitch out. Then he airmailed a routine lob wedge over the green and missed a six-footer for bogey. He was two-over after about 13 minutes, immediately behind the proverbial 8-ball.

Meanwhile, Koepka smashed his drive down the fairway, played safely right of the flag with his approach and holed a bomb to begin his conquest with a birdie.

One player, a rusty 40-something dealing with an emotional letdown; the other, a virile 29-year-old at the height of his powers.

It was a sign of things to come. As Koepka kept cooking, Woods kept struggling. Apart from a four-hole stretch that he played in four–under on Thursday, Tiger was sloppy throughout the two days here on Long Island. His trusty fade with his driver was nowhere to be found (he hit just 3 of 14 fairways on Friday). He missed his approaches in the wrong spots. And he couldn’t get the putter hot to compensate for his imprecise ball striking.

“Just didn’t do the little things I needed to do,” was his assessment of the week. “I had a couple three–putts. I didn’t hit the wedges close. I didn’t hit it in the fairway today. Just did a lot of little things wrong.”

This was always going to be a tough ask. The rest of us didn’t see it at the time, but Woods did. Playing well here would have required him to re-focus after the win of a lifetime, to find the time to practice between the celebratory dinners and the interviews and the medal of freedom ceremony. (And even then, it all likely would have been for naught, given how otherworldly Kopeka has been.)

Woods knew he spent months preparing himself for Augusta. He knew he was in peak physical condition then. He knew his game was right where it needed to be. And he knew just how hard he worked to get it that way, and how he wouldn’t be able to just flip a switch and run it back in one month’s time. Especially on a course as brutally unforgiving as Bethpage Black, no matter how simple Koepka makes it look.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” Woods said. “I’ve enjoyed being the Masters champion again.”

Related slideshow: Best of 2019 PGA Championship (provided by imagn)

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