JERSEY CITY, N.J. — When Tiger Woods arrives on the grounds this week at Liberty National, it will have been nearly a decade since he first stepped foot on the picturesque, though architecturally unusual, New Jersey course. Judging from his comments, and the comments of many pros from back at the 2009 Barclays (which is now the Northern Trust), it seemed unlikely that the former landfill would get the chance to host many more PGA Tour events.
Unbeknown to Woods at the time, that week turned out to be the beginning of a long, successful, complicated and painful relationship between player and course. As Woods prepares to make his first start since the Open Championship, we took a chronological look at the Woods/Liberty National saga from the past 10 years, highlighting all the good, the bad and the ugly.
After his first major-less season since 2004, capped by a stunning defeat at the hands of Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship, Woods came to the Barclays still No. 1 on the FedEx Cup Points List with five wins that season. Because of his standing, he did not need to show up to the first leg of the Playoffs, a move he pulled in 2007, the year the FedEx Cup made its debut. Yet Woods did play, a decision that looked even stranger when he was asked his opinion of Liberty National and had this to say:
"It's interesting," said Woods, who was asked to elaborate on his two-word answer. "It's interesting," he repeated. Ringing endorsement!
Incredibly, despite scoffing at the place before hitting his first competitive shot there, Woods didn't just contend, he nearly won. On the 72nd hole, which sits along the water with views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan in the distance, Woods almost provided a vintage moment for the always boisterous Jersey crowd. Needing a birdie, he striped a 187-yard 6-iron to seven feet, setting up a must-make putt that would have forced a playoff with Heath Slocum. It's a putt Woods normally would make in his sleep, but it hooked hard to the left at the last second, almost as if the course was giving Woods the evil eye:
The two-putt par left Woods with a four-under-par 67, which put him one shot shy of Slocum, who had entered the week 124th in the FedEx Cup standings. The David versus Goliath sudden-death playoff many hoped for never happened, and it felt like this was the last we'd likely see Liberty National, especially after Woods was asked afterward if he hoped to see the event return to Jersey City. This time, he said nothing.
And yet the Barclays did return to Liberty National. Back again in 2013, Woods was now major-less for five straight seasons, the longest stretch of his career. But yet again he came in ranked first in the FedEx Cup Standings, having won five times in just 12 starts that year. After Woods & Co. lambasted the layout in 2009, major changes were made to the course before the tour returned in 2013, and those changes got an instant thumbs up from Tiger.
"They made some really nice improvements," Woods said. "Some of the landing areas have been changed. Some of the greens have been changed, and a couple bunkers have been repositioned, but they have made some really nice, positive improvements."
As Woods went on to prove that week, it didn't really matter how Liberty National played, he was going to contend anyway. After a front-nine 33 on Sunday, he once again was in the mix, and had a chance to provide another edge-of-your-seat moment at the par-5 13th, where he had 3-wood in his hand as he hoped to reach the green in two to set up an eagle look. Instead, he provided one of the most infamous images of his career, one that involved him dropping to his knees in a world of pain.
Remarkably, Woods powered through the rest of his round, bogeying the 13th and 15th but bouncing back with birdies at the 16th and 17th holes, each time gingerly bending over to avoid any more pain as he got his ball out of the cup. Once again, at the 72nd hole, he had a look at birdie that would have forced a playoff with that week's winner, Adam Scott. This time, though, it didn't hook left. It never got to the hole:
In two trips to Liberty, Woods collected a pair of T-2s. For anyone else, that would earn "horse for the course" labels. For Tiger, though, it was now a place that would remind him of nothing but two silver medals and a picture on his knees in pain in the middle of the 13th fairway. As we'd find out the next year, that moment appeared to signal the beginning of the end for Woods, whose body was clearly breaking down. Over the next four years, Woods played just 19 events, many of which he was forced to withdraw from because of injury. During that span he had one top 10, a rash of injuries, a few rounds in the 80s and not a single victory. After missing the cut at Torrey Pines in January 2017 and then walking off the course at the Dubai Desert Classic the next month, it was looking more and more like the 2013 Barclays would be the last time Woods seriously contended for a professional victory.
2017 Presidents Cup
After what was described as a year from hell by many in the golf media, Woods returned to Liberty National not as a player, but as an assistant captain for Steve Stricker's American team at the Presidents Cup. Of course, even though Woods was not competing, he was still the biggest draw, fielding many questions in press conferences and receiving cheers just for strolling around wearing an earpiece. One of the questions tossed his way yielded by far the biggest headlines of the week, understandable given the fact that spectators were watching another American beatdown of the International team that lacked in the excitement department. Speaking for the first time since his back-fusion surgery in April 2017, Woods made it clear that there was no rush to return to professional golf.
"I don't know what my future holds for me. As I've told you guys, I'm hitting 60-yard shots," said Woods, who had stated the previous week in a blog on his website that he had begun practicing his chipping.
But it was his response to a question just before that grabbed everybody's attention. When asked if he could see a scenario where he could not return to competitive golf, Woods said, "Yeah, definitely."
That had to have felt like a gut punch for the Tiger faithful, even the folks who stuck by his side since Day 1.
With all that said, the 2017 Presidents Cup was a good week in Woods' life. He was engaged throughout the event, not only with the team but with the fans, and if it was his last time at Liberty National in any sort of golf capacity, he could look back at the place fondly, even after all the two had been through.
2019 Northern Trust
Ten years, a pair of T-2s, a gruesome-looking on-course injury and an acceptance-that-his-career-might-be-over later, Woods is back at Liberty National this week to ... wait for it ... play golf! And he's doing so as the reigning Masters champion, something not even he could have fathomed when he said he could definitely see a scenario where he'd never return to competitive golf. Since that epic Masters victory though, Woods has been shaky in four starts, missing cuts at the PGA Championship and Open Championship and finishing T-9 at the Memorial and T-21 at the U.S. Open. With the way he looked at Royal Portrush, it's fair to wonder if the Masters might have been his last hurrah. Knowing Woods, he might very well show up and contend this week once again. (The place has grown on him enough to where he's announced that he'll host a high-end amateur tournament there in September to help benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation.) Or, he could miss the cut and ramp up the speculation machine to 11. Either way, it'll be another complicated chapter to add to the Tiger Woods at Liberty National story.
UPDATE: Well, we told you something of note would likely happen with Tiger Woods at Liberty National this week. Unfortunately, it's not good news, as Woods withdrew on Friday morning, citing a "mild oblique strain" as the reason. The news wasn't all too surprising given Woods stated he felt "stiff" during the Wednesday Pro-Am, causing him to cease taking full swings in favor of chips and putts late in the day. He then opened with a 75 on Thursday, which put him 13 shots off the lead heading into the second round. If he feels okay, he'll give it a go next week at Medinah, site of the BMW Championship and a place Woods has won a pair of PGA Championships in his career. He has much better memories there then he's had at Liberty National, which has become his personal house of horrors.