PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The red shirt Sunday and the size of the galleries were the same. So, too, in an odd sort of way, was the early departure.
Tiger Woods was gone from the PGA Championship by early afternoon, 4-over for the tournament and miles from Oak Hill by the time the trophy presentation began. He always said majors were the events he wanted to be measured by, so it should have come as no surprise when a fan reminded him of that, yelling “Masters 2014!” even as Woods trudged his way up the final fairway.
Asked afterward whether it would be tough to wait until next spring to resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 career majors, the glazed-over look in Woods’ eyes was familiar as well.
“The only time it was really hard was going into ’01,” he said. “That was really tough because I was asked, basically every day and every round for eight months, ‘Is it a grand slam? Are you going to try and win all four?’”
That was at the end of the 2000 season, but it seems like a lifetime ago now. Woods won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in succession that year, roughly the middle of an incredible run when he collected seven majors in four years.
Those were three years between his wins in the 2002 U.S. Open and the 2005 Masters. That seems like a lifetime ago, too.
The maddening thing about this latest drought – beyond the fact that Woods will be 38 in December, an age when most great champions are done winning majors – is that Woods can still play. Injuries and the self-inflicted sex scandal of late 2009 effectively wiped out the next two seasons. But he won three times last year and five times already this season, including just a week ago at Firestone, where he practically lapped the field by seven strokes.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t this week,” Woods said. “Didn’t seem to hit it as good and didn’t make many putts until the last few holes today. Didn’t give myself many looks and certainly didn’t hit the ball good enough to be in it.”
Exactly why that is remains anyone’s guess.
If it’s because Woods presses too hard during the majors now, we’ll all be a lot older by the time he gets around to admitting it. He certainly knows this litany:
Most of the game’s great major champions crested the hill by their mid to late 30s. Bobby Jones retired at 28. Tom Watson and Byron Nelson never won another after 33; Arnold Palmer, 34; and Walter Hagen, 36. Gary Player won only one after 38 and Nick Faldo his last at 39. Ben Hogan was an outlier, winning into his early 40s.
Jack Nicklaus won all but one of his by age 40, covering an 18-year span; and that last one, the 1986 Masters at age 46, was what people mean by “catching lightning in a bottle.”
Woods can’t rely on that. But neither, it seems, should he rely on trying to play the majors the way he always has – cautiously plotting his way around the game’s toughest venues while many of the same golfers he inspired to hit the gym and hit it longer fly by him taking risks. What he’s doing at the moment isn’t working, at least not in the majors, no matter how hard Woods tries to spin the results.
“Is it concerning? As I said, I’ve been there in half of them this year,” he said referring to his finishes at the Masters (tied for fourth) and last month’s British Open (tied for sixth). So that’s about right.
“If you are going to be in there for three-quarters, or half of them, with a chance to win on the back nine,” he added, “you have just got to get it done.”
Good luck with that.