TULSA, OKLAHOMA | What if this is all that we get from Tiger Woods?
What if there isn’t something more, another run at another trophy, another comeback in a career dotted by comebacks?
What if we’re waiting for a phone call that never comes?
When Woods withdrew late Saturday afternoon after his third round in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, it was one more acknowledgement of what our eyes and his numbers told us.
Will and wishes aren’t enough, even for Tiger Woods, who believes he can do anything but surrender.
And he surrendered at Southern Hills.
What is remarkable is that Woods made the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship this year, something which Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele haven’t been able to do. But the longer Woods went at both places, the more difficult it became until finally it was too hard to continue.
Will we see him at the U.S. Open at The Country Club next month?
It seems iffy.
The Open Championship at St. Andrews?
It’s a nice thought and one that has driven Woods for a while.
For as long as most of us care to remember, Woods has been a joy to watch, a window into a world we can’t inhabit, only appreciate. He’s been Shakespeare with a sand wedge and Secretariat turning for home in the Belmont.
For years, Woods arrived like a prize fighter, crowds parting, heads turning, eyes staring. The center of golf’s universe, the pull as invisible but as real as a magnet’s.
The appreciation remains, but the wonder has been replaced – at least for now – by melancholy. It felt at Southern Hills, once the emotion eroded and reality barged in like Saturday’s chilly breeze, that this may be something that even Tiger can’t fully overcome.
He is like Clint Eastwood, showing his age while maintaining his meaning if not his menace.
Woods moves carefully, like a big man in a small room being careful not to bump the good china on display. His athletic swagger has been sacrificed for care and comfort, his right leg rebuilt with rods and screws to hold it together.
At times last week, he used his golf club like a cane because of the damage done to his wreck-ravaged right leg. This isn’t like at Torrey Pines in 2008 when he won a U.S. Open with cracked bones in his leg. That was a temporary condition. This feels more permanent.
It has forced us to see Woods through a different lens now. The respect is eternal. The body, as we all learn, is not.
He can’t crouch down to read putts any more. He leans over, a half squat, like something an older man would do. He could be the oldest 46-year-old you’ll find.
At Southern Hills, where Woods wrote a chapter in his legend by winning the PGA Championship 15 years ago, he was all the Tiger he could be. As he jetted home to south Florida, we were left to wonder whether his leg or his soul hurt more.
It called to mind a line from a long-ago John Fogerty song about broken-down cowboys: “Saddlebags full of pain, carries them around just like a middle name…”
Woods has worn pain like a ball cap, just another part of his ensemble, but for every smile, there is now a wince or a grimace.
Through everything – because of everything – Woods remains fascinating. There was a joy to see him grind to make the cut on Friday afternoon last week, toweling off the sweat and shaking off a double bogey that left him on the outside looking in with seven holes to play.
When Saturday dawned damp, breezy and cool, it was everything Woods didn’t need to be at his best, whatever his best is these days. He’s always loved the heat, especially after five back surgeries and the devastating car wreck, and in the third round, he looked uncomfortable again, just as he had Thursday and Friday playing alongside Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
“He’s the ultimate pro,” McIlroy said Friday. “Looking at him (Thursday) ... if that would have been me, I would have been considering pulling out and just going home, but Tiger is different and he's proved he's different. It was just a monumental effort.”
His competitive ferocity has endured through it all, the eternal flame still burning inside him even as he limps from shot to shot.
On Saturday, Woods made an early triple bogey when he hit his tee shot on the par-3 sixth into the water, then missed the green from the drop zone. Later, he half-bladed a pitch shot over a green. Several approach shots didn’t reach their intended green.
He was like a singer who couldn’t hit the high notes, but he still scratched out a late birdie to break 80, even if it only mattered to him.
Someone wondered whether Woods felt embarrassed by his score. Frustrated, yes; embarrassed, no. He never should be embarrassed by not playing like he did for so long. It’s all different now, and that’s OK.
“You feel so sorry for him having to go through this,” Shaun Norris said after playing with Woods on Saturday. “But then again, you also see the type of person that he is, that he grinds through everything and pushes himself, even all the pain and that. It's not easy to see a guy like him have to go through that and struggle like that.”
The PGA Championship went on Sunday without Woods, the answer to what comes next hanging out there like an open-ended question.
Woods, it’s fair to assume, is wondering, too.
Top: Tiger Woods during the second round of the PGA Championship