It has taken some time – decades, really – but Tiger Woods now pretty much shares the same view about his chosen game as the rest of the world.
“Golf is always frustrating.”
So he said the other day during his pre-U.S. Open presser, sounding as much like a 14-handicapper as a 14-time major champion.
This Open represents the 10-year milepost since Woods won the last of his majors, a defining moment even for him when on fractured leg and damaged knee he outlasted Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in a Monday playoff.
To hear Woods speak now – following an epic fall from grace and a back turned to brittle porcelain – is to hear a voice tempered by failure. The lessons of perspective and humility are difficult, particularly for someone who has had such little need of them.
Woods spoke with that voice Tuesday, when asked about the 10 fallow years spent not winning a major or advancing his legacy.
“Yeah, I would have thought I’d have been there on a number of occasions to win a major championship since the ’08 U.S. Open, and I haven’t done it,” he said. “And, no, I don’t like that feeling.”
“But,” he added with an almost imperceptible smile, “for the first few years of my career, I did pretty well.”
Golf frustrating? For the one player who could make it appear as natural and instinctual as scratching an itch, even amongst those who profess to be pretty good at it.
This week’s U.S. Open will be Woods’ 10th event back since his latest spinal surgery. And if this comeback has proven nothing else, it is that golf is extraordinarily frustrating. In flashes, he has displayed former form. A runner-up finish at the Valspar. A fifth place the following week at the Palmer. An actual sub-par round at the Masters – a Sunday 69, his first of the week. But there remained always something incomplete about his game, holding him back from stacking enough good rounds atop one another to allow him to see over the crowd.
Lately, it was a putter at the Memorial that seemed to be made of concrete.
“You’ve seen the tournaments I’ve played in this year – it’s always something,” Woods said. “Hopefully, this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and even it out.”
Rather than growl about not winning, this new, ever slightly more human version of Woods chooses to wax about just the chance to fall short. “Yeah, I’ve had my opportunities (to compete),” he said. “I’m very thankful to have had those opportunities. I didn’t know if I was going to have them again.”
Just as 2018 represented Woods’ return to the Masters following a three-year absence, it also marks a reunion with the U.S. Open. A year ago from afar, Woods was watching Brooks Koepka overpower a major championship in the fashion he used to do it. He had just been cleared to make simple movements around the house. Everything more than that since has been a bonus.
“I’ve really missed playing U.S. Opens,” he said.
The Woods who tees off Thursday at 1:47 p.m. with a couple stiffs named Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas is a more relaxed presence than the one who twice before visited Shinnecock Hills. “His killer instincts are kind of starting to go more toward what they used to be, (but) he’s not as aggressive as he used to be with regard to that,” Jason Day noted.
But can this kinder, gentler version of Woods win again?
“I think he’s playing good enough golf to win a tournament at any point in time,” Spieth said.
Time is something in dwindling supply for a 42-year-old golfer, 10 years removed from his last major victory. He has learned so much about the flip side of life and golf since then. Is this the week he plays an old hit from the “A” side?
Realistically, that’s too much to expect - of him and the frustrating game he plays.