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PGA Championship 2022: Why Tiger and Rory are heading down vastly different paths

This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

May 20, 2022
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Christian Petersen

TULSA — There is a certain majesty to the 10th tee at Southern Hills, with ribbons of fairway stretching into the distance and glimpses of the skyline far beyond. A few minutes after 8 o’clock on Thursday morning, Tiger Woods began his PGA Championship with a drive that seemed to stay in the air forever. Woods held his follow-through just a touch longer than usual, and they may as well have bronzed him on the spot. Woods’ round was a monument to his grit and stubbornness. Even with his body betraying him in real time, he kept moving forward, grinding out a 74 on a treacherous golf course that left him in 99th place after the first round.

Woods’ place in the pantheon is secure. Pre-tournament, he stayed on script by insisting he intended to win the event. But these cameos in this last act of Woods’ career are about his persistence, not his performance. The fans who swarmed the twisty fairways at Southern Hills were giddy just to get a glimpse of this living legend, no matter how badly he was limping or how errant his ball-striking became as the round wore on under a merciless sun.

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Christian Petersen

Walking alongside Woods was Rory McIlroy, and compared to Tiger’s labored gait, the wee Northern Irishman looked as if he was dancing atop the grass. Golf never looks as fun as when McIlroy is in full flight. Tiger dinked his way around, playing old-man golf with many irons off the tee, while McIlroy wielded his driver with abandon, launching 10 drives longer than 325 yards, including a pair that traveled 378. Afterward, Woods sounded as if he had found religion. “We were talking about it [with caddie Joe LaCava], and the days of the Lee Janzens and the Scott Simpsons and the [Nick] Faldos of the world, playing that kind of golf is gone,” said Woods, who averaged just 293.4 yards with his tee shots, ranking him 136th in a field of 156 that features 20 club professionals and assorted long-in-the-tooth past champs. “You go out there and hit driver a lot, and if you have a hot week, you have a hot week and you’re up there. The game is just different.”

It felt as if McIlroy enjoyed showing off in front of Woods, an inspiration and a burden. After Rory’s blowout win at the 2012 PGA, giving him two commanding major championship victories, Padraig Harrington opined that McIlroy, not Tiger, might be the greater threat to Jack Nicklaus’ gold standard of 18 major championship victories. But McIlroy, who turned 33 this month, has been stalled at four major wins for the past eight years, a vexing drought in what should be his prime. (In that stretch he has won everything else: 11 PGA Tour events, including the Players, two FedEx Cups and two Race to Dubais.) He has made a glum habit of blowing up in the first round of the majors, with his first-round scoring average a whopping 2.24 strokes higher than rounds 2 to 4. He developed a kind of stage fright. So maybe this PGA Championship did McIlroy a favor by throwing him into a super group that included Jordan Spieth. McIlroy has never tussled with Woods when it really matters, and because of injuries or missed cuts, Tiger wasn’t even on the property for two of McIlroy’s major championship triumphs. On Thursday, Rory birdied his last hole for a five-under 65, giving him a one-shot lead over Tom Hoge and Will Zalatoris. McIlroy clearly enjoyed playing his best in front of such an exacting audience, even if he later denied it: “I think when your game is feeling like that, it’s just a matter of going out there and really sticking to your game plan, executing as well as you possibly can, and just sort of staying in your own little world. I did that really well today.”

McIlroy will face a stern test during his Friday afternoon tee time, with a more baked-out and breezy Southern Hills. “It’s a great start, but I’m not going to get ahead of myself,” he said.

For Woods, just making the cut will be a victory. After hitting only three of his final 13 greens, which led to seven bogeys, he offered a sobering recap of his balky right leg: “Loading hurts. Pressing off it hurts. Walking hurts. Twisting hurts.”

And yet he persists. Right now, golf seems to bring little joy to Woods; the catharsis comes simply from gutting out a full 18 holes. McIlroy has often been oppressed by his extravagant talent and the weight of expectations, but he is clearly having fun again. They will walk shoulder-to-shoulder during the second round of this PGA Championship, each continuing his quest, each seeking a different kind of relief.