Between here and Masters, Tiger Woods looks to get busy, get better

Tiger Woods walks down the 10th fairway during the final round of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in San Francisco.

Credit: AP

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Tiger Woods walks down the 10th fairway during the final round of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in San Francisco.

Credit: AP

Tiger Woods began his workday Sunday morning hearing some of the most dreaded words in golf for a fellow of his stature about to play the final round of a major championship:

“This is the 8:30 starting time ...”

Yes, even with no fans on the course for these big pro tournaments, they still formally introduce the players at the first tee. Strange — it’s rather like offering communion in an empty church — but true.

Anyway, at 2 over through the first three rounds of the PGA Championship, cobwebs draping his game over Friday and Saturday rounds in which he could only amass a total of four birdies, Woods had to go out with the junior varsity Sunday. He’d tee off nearly five-and-a-half hours before the leaders would launch — good for ESPN’s warm-up bloc, bad for him.

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There, you see, all that time spent not playing does have an effect. It was reassuring in a way to know that not even Woods could just roll out of a competitive coma and contend with the strongest of fields. This greatness thing still demands some time in the green and perfect trenches, sweating over shots that count for something. And Woods had only played four PGA Tour rounds since mid-February, not all due to his booby-trapped back.

Watching Woods early on a Sunday, with no chance of bothering the lead, was watching Adele work on her scales or RobertDe Niro work on his diction. He was pretty good at what he did Sunday, shooting a 3-under 67, his best round of the week, but it lacked deeper meaning. It was rehearsal time.

Another major passes, and the window for closing the gap on Jack Nicklaus shuts just a bit more (it stands at three, Nicklaus’ 18 majors to Woods’ 15).

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He’s not getting any younger. At 44, Woods already has gone to a slightly longer putter in order to take a little strain off his back. Can orthopedic golf shoes be far behind?

And these events aren’t getting any easier to win, as Woods pointed out earlier this week while citing beefed up courses and an array of young talent now crowding the leaderboards. “It’s getting tighter and it’s getting harder to win events,” he said.

Sometimes even a major can be a tune-up. That was the case for Woods here this week. There is a price to paid for that. And that price is teeing off at 8:30 in the morning on Sunday.

Before leaving San Francisco, he did, however, sound like a fellow heading in the right direction.

“I think what I got out of this week is that I felt I was competitive,” said Woods, whose rounds of 68-72-72-67 left him a 1 under for the tournament.

“If I would have made a few more putts on Friday early on, and the same thing with Saturday, I felt like I would have been right there with a chance come today. It didn’t happen, but I fought hard, and today was more indicative of how I could have played on Friday and Saturday if I would have made a few putts early.”

Most importantly, when speculating on a fellow with a fused spine who was playing in the damp chill of northern California, was this: “Overall the body reacted pretty good,” he said.

This promises to be prime Tiger watching time. Health permitting, he’ll attempt to accelerate his playing schedule to keep up with his sport, which has a lot of catching up to do after its coronavirus shutdown.

“This is a big run for us coming up here,” Woods said. “I’ve been gearing up for this and looking forward to the challenges of not only this week, but obviously the playoffs and a U.S. Open and then the Masters.”

He figures to take off a week in advance of the first of two FedEx Cup playoff events leading to the Tour Championship at East Lake Sept. 4-7. He was 48th in FedEx Cup points entering this week, and if he can propel himself to the top 30, he’ll make his return to East Lake two years after inciting all kinds of civil disobedience when walking up No. 18 to victory. To do that also would mean grinding it out for three consecutive weeks, not exactly his normal pace anymore.

“That’s potentially what could happen, and we’ve been training for that,” Woods said, “trying to get my strength and endurance up to that ability to making sure that I can handle that type of workload.

“We knew once I started playing again when I committed to Memorial that this was going to be a heavy workload, and my training sessions, we’ve been pushing it pretty hard, making sure that I kept my strength and endurance up.”

In the drastically reconfigured majors schedule, Woods would then point to the U.S. Open Sept. 17-20 and be presumably better prepared to defend his title at the Masters come November.

Most folks would be tickled if he’d take a steel brush to the rust on his game and tee off a little later in the day Nov. 15 at Augusta National.