Tiger Woods is moving toward an uncertain future

TULSA. Okla. – Sporting legends are often condemned to a middle age in which they’re judged against the macro numbers posted during the flush of youth. For Tiger Woods, those past accomplishments cast a lengthy shadow — 15 major championship victories, 82 PGA Tour wins, 11 player of the year awards, to cite but a few. Micro numbers matter in as much as he still signs his name below one on a scorecard. Saturday’s micro-moment at the PGA Championship was disheartening if measured against the Woods who won the Tour’s Vardon Award for best scoring average nine times, yet still heartening in the context of Woods today.

A 79 left Woods in a tie for 76th place at Southern Hills, occupying the bottom rung of a leaderboard that he has been atop when it mattered four times. There are ample statistics that explain how he came to be there — dead last in strokes gained tee to green, dead last in strokes gained around the green, making five consecutive bogeys for the first time in his career — but there are no metrics for how he came to be here competing at all.

Heart, grit, pride and determination don’t show up on any performance database, but they were writ large on Woods’ face this week, evident in every grimace as he limped his way through 54 holes. Asked after the round if he will make it 72 holes, he was non-committal.

“Well, I’m sore. I know that is for a fact, ”he said. “We’ll do some work and see how it goes.”

His struggles should come as no surprise. Woods has played seven competitive rounds on the PGA Tour in the last 552 days. It’s remarkable that he has played any since almost losing his right leg in a one-car crash 15 months ago. His analysis of Saturday’s 79 was characteristically unvarnished.

“I didn’t do anything right. I didn’t hit many good shots, ”he said. “Consequently, I ended up with a pretty high score.”

Seven rounds are insufficient to recapture form after a lengthy layoff, much less after devastating injury, but it has been sufficient to detect promising signs — impressive swing speed, occasional sharpness on and around the greens, the odd day of ball striking. It’s all inconsistent, sure, but still, it’s something to work with. For now.

Earlier this week, Woods assessed his progress since returning to action last month at Augusta National. “I’ve gotten stronger since then. But still, it’s still going to be sore and walking is a challenge. I can hit golf balls, but the challenge is walking. It’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future for sure, “he said.

The process of scraping off the rust, of gauging the corrosion of both body and game, of polishing both to a workable sheen, of testing and trusting and delivering results, requires time. When you’re the greatest player of your (or any) generation, however, fans grow impatient for evidence that you’re still the competitor of old, and increasingly eager for you to achieve the lofty ambitions they hold in your name. Woods seems conscious of that, and perhaps even feels the same way himself.

Tiger Woods and caddy Joe LaCava walk on the first fairway during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Southern Hills Country Club. Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

During his Tuesday press conference, he was asked if he could contend or win at Southern Hills, as he did 15 years ago. “I can, definitely,” he replied quickly. “I just have to go out there and do it.” Whether it’s something Woods believes, something he wanted to believe, or something he wants fans to believe, who knows?

Woods won’t win this week and, like everyone else in this field, might not do so ever again. His enviable strength from the neck up cannot fully compensate for his apparent weaknesses from the neck down.

“It was hurting but I pushed through it. It was more mind than body, ”he said a few days ago while discussing his recovery after the Masters. “I said, I’ve won with a broken leg before.”

His past heroics — and that mental fortitude in bouncing back from multiple surgeries — turbocharge assumptions for his future. At a certain point, there will come a subtle shift, from sincere gratitude for Woods’ presence to weightier expectations for his performance.

One hundred nine days elapsed between the hit and giggle with his son at the PNC Championship and the Masters. A further 39 days passed before the PGA Championship. Woods has 26 days until the US Open at The Country Club, then 25 to the Open Championship at the Old Course. With each start, his recovery window will slowly shrink as expectations slowly grow.

Hopefully, each turn of the calendar between Tulsa and St. Andrews leaves him a little stronger physically, a little sharper professionally, and a little more able to shape whatever his new reality is destined to be.

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