FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The Tiger Woods of old entered every tournament expecting to win. An older, wiser Woods returned last year from his fourth back operation with tempered expectations.
As he explained Tuesday, “There’s more days I feel older than my age than I do younger.”
After Woods’s victory last month at the Masters, which he secured less than two years after undergoing a spinal fusion, the oddsmakers, and nearly everyone else, expected him to contend in his next start, the P.G.A. Championship at Bethpage Black, where he won the 2002 United States Open for one of his 15 major titles.
Instead, for the ninth time in his 76 major starts as a professional, Woods failed to advance to the weekend. He had won 10 major titles before missing a cut for the first time, at the 2006 United States Open about six weeks after the death of his father, Earl Woods.
Woods shot a three-over-par 73 on Friday to finish with a 36-hole total of five-over 145, one stroke above the cut line — and 17 strokes behind the leader, Brooks Koepka, with whom he was grouped.
Six of Woods’s missed cuts in the majors have come since he had the first of his back procedures in 2014.
“I just wasn’t moving the way I needed to,” Woods said. “That’s the way it goes. There’s going to be days and weeks where it just doesn’t work.”
Woods, 43, went into the tournament rusty. This was only his seventh start of 2019. He bypassed a tuneup event in Charlotte, N.C., that he had won before, citing mental fatigue from his Masters performance. And his preparation once he arrived in New York was curtailed by illness. Instead of playing the back nine in a Wednesday practice round, as he had intended, he chose to rest.
In his two competitive rounds, Woods played the course’s back nine in six over par.
“There’s no reason I can’t get up to speed again,” Woods said. “I have to start feeling better first.”
He had foreshadowed his struggles in a pretournament news conference, where he described “the fickle nature” of having part of his back fused.
“Being a little bit older and with the back the way it is, there’s a lot of concerns,” he said, “and when it comes to what do I need to do to get ready and be ready to go, sometimes the quick turnarounds may be a little bit more difficult.”
Woods’s preround routine, which he could complete in minutes in his younger days, now takes several hours. It necessitated a predawn wake-up call for Thursday’s early round in damp, chilly weather.
Playing his second round in the afternoon and in breezy, damp conditions, Woods looked out of sorts from his opening drive, which sailed left. He didn’t land a ball in the fairway off the tee until the ninth hole, and hit only three fairways for the round.
This, Woods warned, is his new normal. When he feels good, he can play very, very well, and when he’s not, he might miss the cut.
“Some days I have more range of motion,” Woods said. “Some days I don’t. Some days I ache more, and sometimes I don’t. There’s more volatility.”
Woods made 18 starts last season, which was six more than he had made in the previous three years combined. His 2018 season culminated with a victory at the Tour Championship, his 80th PGA Tour title but his first since 2013. With his Masters title, Woods moved one win from tying Sam Snead’s record of 82 tour titles.
It’s hard to say when and where Woods’s pursuit of Snead will resume. Most likely it will be in two weeks at the Memorial Tournament, which is hosted by the 18-time major winner, Jack Nicklaus.
Woods is a five-time winner of the tournament, but as he pointed out, he is in uncharted territory. He can’t practice as long or as hard as he used to, and his playing availability hinges on how his back holds up.
Woods is experimenting to find a work-rest balance that will give him the best chance to succeed when he does tee it up.
The next major is the United States Open next month at Pebble Beach in Northern California, where Woods won the first of his three U.S. Open titles.
“That’s going to be the interesting part going forward,” Woods said at the start of the week. “How much do I play, and how much do I rest? I think I’ve done a lot of the legwork and the hard work already, trying to find my game over the past year and a half.
“Now I think it’s just maintaining it,” he continued. “I know that I feel better when I’m fresh. The body doesn’t respond like it used to, doesn’t bounce back quite as well, so I’ve got to be aware of that.”
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