PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Tiger Woods accomplished his goal, winning the Masters in April for his 15th career major championship and first in over a decade. The price has proven to be a steep one, though.
“It took a lot out of me,” Woods said Tuesday of his victory this spring at Augusta National. “That golf course puts so much stress on the system.”
Whether he is fully recovered and able to again ratchet up his game to a high enough level to contend for a fourth claret jug is the big question for the 43-year-old heading into the year’s final major.
This week’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush will be just the fourth start for Woods since he slipped his arms into a fifth career green jacket earlier this year. He has played only 10 competitive rounds in the three months since, with a missed cut at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, a T-9 at the Memorial and a T-21 at the U.S. Open.
Since then, Woods has barely touched a club. After playing at Pebble Beach, he took a lengthy vacation in Thailand with his girlfriend, two kids and his mom, returning home to South Florida in early July. He slowly began to get back to work, arriving at the Dunluce Links on Sunday for his first look at the course, where he played 18 holes with Patrick Reed before going another 18 a day later with Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Tuesday, meanwhile, he played seven holes and had a light practice session that included putting coach Matt Killen.
All that time off caused some to wonder if Woods would be properly prepared for Portrush. Padraig Harrington was first to question the approach two weeks ago. Then Paul McGinley did this week.
“I don’t know what’s going on with Tiger,” McGinley, the former European Ryder Cup captain said. “His schedule doesn’t make a lot of sense—in fact, to play just one tournament outside the majors makes no sense at all to me, unless he’s got something else going on that we don’t know about.
“We don’t know where he is with his fitness, we don’t know where he is with his health—we just don’t know a whole lot about anything to do with him at the moment. But the way he’s planned his schedule, it’s easy to think there must be something amiss.”
From Woods’ perspective, however, he’s trying to get through not just this season but beyond.
“[Last year] I played too much,” said Woods, who made 17 starts in 2018. “A lot of it was trying to qualify for certain events, trying to get into the playoffs, trying to qualify for Akron. It was just trying to build a schedule, to get me where my World Golf Ranking would get me up there where I'd be in the World Golf Championships and some of the bigger events, where I didn't need an exemption into the the U.S. Open. So this year I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure that I don't play too much.
“I want to play here as long as I possibly can. And you have to understand, if I play a lot, I won't be out here that long.”
There’s also the question of how well a guy who has had four back surgeries, among myriad other operations, will hold up in what could be chilly, wet conditions along the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Rain is in the forecast for all four rounds, and temperatures aren’t expected to climb out of the low 60s at best.
Someone of Woods’ age being in contention, or even winning, wouldn’t be unprecedented, though.
In 2008, 53-year-old Greg Norman led through the first three rounds at Royal Birkdale. A year later, 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly won at Turnberry before losing in a playoff. In 2011, Darren Clarke at 42 won the claret jug on a rain-soaked Royal St. George’s.
Despite 15 career majors, this is still new territory for Woods, as the PGA Tour schedule was reconfigured this season, with the PGA Championship, previously held in August, moved to May, the Players Championship to March and the FedEx Cup Playoffs concluding at the end of August.
All of which has compressed the end-of-year schedule and left Woods trying to find the right balance.
“This schedule is a little bit different,” he said. “I'm trying to figure it out, and trying to play enough golf to where that I can compete and win events.”
Speaking of scheduling, Woods has a somewhat unique one this week, teeing off at 3:09 local time Thursday. The late start means he'll have a chance to study how the golf course is playing before he even gets there.
"I will be watching the tournament. The tournament will be on TV," Woods said in an interview Tuesday with Golfing World on GOLFTV. "That's one of the neat things about this event is that you will have one late tee time and hopefully two late tee times on the weekend. Seeing how the guys play, what clubs they hit off the tee, that's so important. Where the pin locations are, you'll see a lot of the breaks. There's so much you can learn from watching the telecast. It can be extremely advantageous."