Where’s Tiger? Why his absence this week matters with the PGA Championship on deck

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Given the lack of tournament preparation, it doesn’t say much for Tiger Woods’ confidence in his own body that he is not in Memphis, Tennessee, this week in advance of next week’s PGA Championship.

Sure, there are other compelling explanations to skip the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, chief among them the fact that he has never seen the TPC Southwind course.

Throw in the sweltering heat, good chances for thunderstorms (and delays) and the extreme temperature difference between Memphis and San Francisco the following week for the PGA Championship, and there are plenty of good reasons to take it easy this week, work on the game at home, and be fully ready for the delayed first major of 2020.

As Woods said on Friday in announcing that he would be skipping the WGC, he is “doing what I think is best to prepare for the PGA Championship and upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs.”

Fair enough. Woods knows better than anyone how his body is reacting these days, and the parts of his game that need work.

But it is nonetheless telling that he is not competing, especially when you consider he has just four tournament rounds to his name since February — and plenty of competitive rust still showing.

Woods has always been a big supporter of the World Golf Championship events, rarely skipping them when healthy, save for a few Match Play misses over the years. Woods has said many times he appreciates the PGA Tour’s efforts in securing these big-money events. And he has won 18 of them.

Eight of those came at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he dominated the Firestone Country Club course. And eight times he played that tournament the week before the PGA Championship — the only major as a pro in which has played the week prior — so there was precedent for him to do so.

And yet, he took a pass, despite some of the flaws in his game and the lack of preparation.

It’s easy to second-guess now, but perhaps one of the earlier events (RBC Heritage or Travelers?) in the PGA Tour’s restart from the coronavirus pandemic would have made sense, especially given the possibility of skipping the WGC.

Consecutive events is always going to be dicey for Woods, but given his rather lackluster performance at the Memorial, where he twice shot 76 and tied for 40th, it might have been understood.

Of course, the second-round 76 was due in large part to back stiffness that was obvious. Woods could not hide his discomfort, and the shot patterns — he missed seven tee shots to the right in the second round — along with several awkward or one-handed swings were clues.

So Woods has some work to do this week to get ready for the PGA, which will be played at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, a venue where he has had success. Woods won the 2005 WGC-American Express Invitational there in 2005 in a playoff over John Daly. And at the 2009 Presidents Cup, he went 5-0.

But those events were a long time ago.

“I competed and played again,” he said after the final round at the Memorial. “It’s been a while. It was nice to get my feet wet and compete again. Tough, tough conditions to start out my first week back. But it was good to get the feel and the flow of competing again.”

That sounds great if it followed his first event of the year in January, with a slow buildup to the Masters.

But Tiger has some ground to cover this week, and here are a few things to keep in mind.

The big picture

Woods is scrutinized like no other, and often judged by his own lofty standards and expectations. With a bit of perspective, his showing at the Memorial was decent, if not great, but far from awful. He returned at Muirfield Village on the most difficult setup to date of the revised schedule, on a course that played like a major championship over the weekend. That was no simple foray back into golf.

Perhaps most impressive: Woods was tied for sixth in strokes gained approach to the green and tied for 18th in greens in regulation with 62.5%. The man can still hit his irons with the best of them. That is always important in a major championship.

Swing speed

Anecdotally and statistically, Woods’ swing speed was less than it has been, which is both good and bad. It’s good in that he is no longer swinging so violently. There were plenty of long tee shots, well over 300 yards, and on the weekend especially, the swing looked smooth.

The lack of speed could be by design or because he was being careful. Given all the time away for Woods, it was a bit surprising to see some of those numbers decrease. In 2018, Woods averaged 178 mph ball speed; it was mostly under 170 at the Memorial and his average carry was less than 280 yards.

But it’s not necessarily a negative, unless other parts of his game are not good. Woods was a mediocre 42nd in strokes gained off the tee, meaning he was giving up ground to the field. His driving accuracy was 55%, which is so-so but needs to be better, especially since many of the misses were with clubs other than the driver.

Wedge play

This is one of those confounding things about Tiger’s game. Statistically, he often hits the ball closer to the hole compared to his peers from 180 yards than he does from 100. That’s the key to par-5 scoring, and Woods was just 1 under for the week at Muirfield Village. He also hit just 75% of the greens from 100 to 125 yards.

Putting

This has to improve and Tiger said so himself. “I didn’t feel comfortable playing break,” Woods said. “I’ve been in Florida playing Bermuda [greens] and seeing minimal break. Come out here and playing 10, 12 feet of break was a bit different and something I’m going to have to get used to.”

Understandable, really. It’s not like Tiger has been playing a bevy of courses at home. At the Memorial, he was 56th in strokes gained putting, losing ground to the field. He also missed several short ones. All of that can be cleaned up.

The good news for Woods is Harding Park does not have the traditional California poa annua greens that sometimes give him fits. (Think Riviera, for example.) They are bent grass, like the surface at Muirfield Village and Augusta National. Woods plays on Bermuda at home, but those are typically up to tour-level speeds. Bent can be faster, but it’s generally smooth, exactly how he likes it.

It would make sense for Woods to get to Harding Park early, perhaps this weekend, to get to work on learning those greens.

Walking

It almost sounds silly, but a golfer has to learn how to walk when he hasn’t been playing tournament golf. Woods undoubtedly played plenty of golf at his home course, the Medalist in South Florida, but there is scant evidence that he did much walking. His caddie, Joe LaCava — who often prods him to do this when he is around — was not summoned to Florida prior to Woods’ return. Most of the golf was done out of cart, and that makes sense on some levels. Woods wants to work on his game, and zipping around allows for more time to get on the range and get in the gym.

But there is still something to be said for going through the motions of hitting a drive, walking to the ball, hitting an approach, walking to the green … and never sitting down. Think about it. That is virtually how every round of golf on tour is played, with perhaps a time or two when Woods sits on his bag while play has slowed down.

It takes getting used to that rhythm, and standing for long periods of time and walking more than 5 miles in extreme heat takes a toll — not to mention is cause for a stiff back.

Harding Park is not a strenuous walk, and the temperatures won’t climb much above the low 70s. But it is something to watch.

Lack of tournament golf

Woods has rarely gone into a major championship with so little tournament preparation, with a few notable exceptions.

He will go to Harding Park having played just one of the previous eight weeks in the tour’s restart. That puts him well behind almost every other top player, save for Adam Scott, who has not played during the restart. Throw in the lack of action for Woods since he played the Genesis Invitational — and he has played just one of the past 11 events.

  • In 2015, Woods took off nine weeks due to chipping and back woes following a withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open. He started that year with a missed cut and then the WD and didn’t play again until the Masters, where he tied for 17th.

  • In 2011, Woods suffered Achilles and knee injuries at the Masters, withdrew after nine holes of the Players Championship, then didn’t play again until the WGC-Bridgestone in August, the week prior to the PGA, where he missed the cut.

  • In 2010, Woods did not play at all until the Masters in the aftermath of his personal issues. That he managed to tie for fourth — he opened with a 68 — and was in contention on the final day was a remarkable achievement given all that swirled around him at the time.

  • In 2008, Woods did not play between the Masters and U.S. Open, undergoing what was supposed to be a minor knee procedure but leading to small fractures in the bone of his left leg and an eventual ACL replacement. He won the U.S. Open despite all those issues.

Bottom line, throughout his career, Woods has had far more tournament preparation going into a major than he has now.

Looking ahead

Woods referenced the FedEx Cup playoffs in his tweet announcing he would not play this week. If he is intent on getting to Atlanta for the Tour Championship, he has some work to do, and it will be interesting to see how he attempts to handle it.

Following the 3M Open, Woods dropped to 45th in the FedEx Cup standings (and to 15th in the Official World Golf Ranking) and is likely to drop further after missing the WGC this week.

That means he could use a good week at the PGA Championship to move closer to the top 30, which will be needed for him to make it to Atlanta.

Here’s the problem Woods faces: The first playoff event, the Northern Trust at TPC-Boston, is just two weeks after the PGA. That event has a 36-hole cut. It’s unlikely he would play three straight weeks in the playoffs, so does he sit out the Northern Trust and wait for the top 70 at the BMW? If so, he might put himself in a position where he is too far behind and in need of a big finish.

So does he instead go to Boston with hopes of sitting out Chicago? Or does he consider playing both and taking his chances on a third straight week in Atlanta if he makes it?

Tough decisions. After all, the rescheduled U.S. Open is just two weeks after the Tour Championship. Woods needs to play, but he doesn’t want to play too much.

Woods is undoubtedly not concerned about that now. A big week in San Francisco looms.

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