Tiger Woods’ streak continued at Riviera — but his week was still a win
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Tiger Woods has never won at Riviera.
Devoid of context, I suppose that doesn’t mean much. I haven’t won at Riviera. You probably haven’t, either. (Although John Merrick, if you’re reading this, I see you.) But the thing about Woods is that he’s won everywhere else. He has never played a course on Tour more than four times without winning there — except at Riv, where Sunday marked his 13th unsuccessful try.
“My streak continues,” he said post-round.
Woods arrived in Los Angeles this week with a bold declaration: he believed he could win the tournament. That felt like a stretch; since a horrific car crash the day after this event in 2021 he’d played nine rounds of stroke-play tournament golf, total, and his weekend nosedives — 78-78 at last year’s Masters, 79-WD at the PGA — suggested he wasn’t ready for four days of competition. Now we were supposed to believe Woods was going to summon a miracle at the course where he’s struggled the most?!
He didn’t win. But Woods made the cut, he played all four rounds, he showed flashes of brilliance and he laid out what his future as a tournament golfer might look like. How’d it feel, having Woods back? Playing his first non-major PGA Tour event since 2020? It depended on the day.
Because we see him so rarely, we overreact to Woods’ tournament rounds. Heck, even his practice rounds. And Woods’ pre-tournament range sessions were praiseworthy. He survived a 6:30 a.m. pro-am on Wednesday in blustery conditions. The close to his first round after 15 up-and-down holes — a rousing charge to the clubhouse with birdies at 16, 17 and 18 — inspired delusory thinking. Woods might win the tournament after all!
“That’s the only reason why I tee it up,” Woods said, encouraged by the start.
The conclusion to Friday’s round, on the other hand — three bogeys in his final four holes, including an embarrassing putt into a bunker at No. 6 to post 74 — sunk expectations back to familiar reality. All his work and all our anticipation, washed away with sloppy mistakes and a missed cut?!
“I could have easily got off to a very hot start and I did not, and then middle part of the round I could have turned it around a little bit and I did not,” Woods lamented, citing his putting stroke.
But the cut line held, Woods made it on the number and rebounded with a Saturday round of 4-under 67, sending the TIGER’S BACK-O-METER haywire. Could we still save a spot for this 47-year-old on the Ryder Cup team?!
“That’s the best I’ve played,” Woods said. He didn’t say “since the crash” because he didn’t need to. There’s no use comparing this new era to his peak; his body is different and his expectations are, too, even though the goal remains the same. Sunday our expectations came ping-ponging back to reality. Woods drove it poorly and putted poorly and shot two-over 73, securing a T45 finish.
I walked the last few holes alongside Woods. I was hardly the only one with that idea; more spectators followed this group than the leaders. But it was interesting to see Woods operating on his 68th hole of the day, and then his 69th, and then his 70th. There were pieces of last year’s Tiger — he grimaced after poor shots and sighed shots he gave away, like a missed four-footer at No. 15. But pieces of an older Tiger, too, after a stuffed tee shot at 16 and a rammed-in birdie putt. He still likes hitting those short putts hard.
He mostly walked alone, one foot after the next, keeping his upper body centered and still, seeking efficiency. Extra movement is wasted movement. But several times Woods also walked side-by-side with playing partner Kramer Hickok. Hickok is no spring chicken — at 30, he’s a decade older than Tom Kim — but the scene called to mind Tom Brady chatting up Bucs receiver Scotty Miller, getting to know a new face from a new generation.
“Because I haven’t played a lot in the last few years, there’s a tremendous amount of turnover,” Woods explained. “I look at the Champions Tour leaderboard — those are all the guys I know. There’s a lot of new faces out here that are going to be the future of our tour that I got a chance to see and play with.”
He walked up the final hole by himself but hardly alone. Riviera’s 18th green is a massive grass amphitheater, one of the best spectating sites in professional golf, but as Woods approached there was no grass to be seen. Fans packed in, shoulder to shoulder, soaking up the sun and the scene, still awestruck by his presence. He two-putted for par and then grinned in their direction, first giving one wave and then another, bigger wave. The second sending them into a frenzy. It doesn’t take much.
After signing his card and retreating to the locker room for a few minutes, Woods emerged to talk with reporters. He sounded like a golf fan as he spoke glowingly of the two tournament leaders, Jon Rahm and Max Homa, both deserving contenders.
“This is a ball-striker’s paradise and those two guys have been hitting the ball the best this entire year and it shows on the leaderboard,” he said.
It’s no surprise Woods likes Rahm and Homa; they’re built in his image. Both golfers idolized him growing up and, like Woods, they’re unrepentant try-hards. Their games are based around it. Homa said he was proud how hard he’d fought. And after his win, Rahm was asked what parts of Woods’ game he admired.
“All of it,” he said. “Every single aspect of his game and mentality.”
But Woods isn’t yet content being relegated to commentator and also-ran. He sure didn’t win this week. His T45 was a near carbon copy of his 47th-place result at last year’s Masters. But it felt like significant progress nonetheless. He walked better. He swung harder. His body held up more effectively and his swing did, too. His missteps were as attributable to rust as they were to any physical limitations.
His driving was encouraging; although his speed slipped slightly on Sunday he demonstrated ball speeds in the high 170s and low 180s for the first three rounds, well above Tour average. His iron play was 23rd in the field, also well above average even if it fell short of his impossible standard. His short game looked to be part mastery, part rusty. And he putted well two days (Thursday and Saturday) and poorly the other two (Friday and Sunday). When it was all over, he still beat two-thirds of a top-tier Tour field (and tied 20-year-old Tom Kim).
Between rounds, Woods continues to pay a heavy toll for the privilege of chasing pros half his age. He laid out a simple version of his nightly routine during tournament weeks;
“Yeah, I pretty much lay in ice pretty much all night,” he said. “It’s not fun, I’m very cold all the time. And then treatment, then getting muscles activated and go back and hop in the cold again. The ebb and flow of that, it’s hard. It’s hard mentally, it’s hard physically.”
It’s harder than it ever was. There’s no way around that. And while we can hope there will be a tournament week where Woods strings together a bunch of rounds like his Saturday 67 rather than his Sunday 73, Woods himself seems uncertain that he’ll ever feel much better than this.
It sounds unlikely that we’ll see him again before Augusta. Well, maybe we’ll see him — “Someone will film me hitting balls at Medalist or something like that,” he said — but his projected schedule revolves around the majors, plus “a couple more.” In the balance of rest and rust, rest seems to have the advantage.
A couple hours after Woods finished his round, he transformed back into tournament host. Riviera has become Woods’ event. His foundation serves as the week’s operator and beneficiary. All these years later, it’s still his hometown tournament; this is where he made his PGA Tour debut in 1992, as a 16-year-old high school sophomore. But as he handed Rahm the trophy, it struck me that Riv has proven a fitting host for much more than that.
Woods’ entire career has been based on the pursuit of more, and more, and more. What better event to own than the only one he hasn’t conquered? He has turned the Genesis Invitational, the one hurdle he hasn’t cleared, into a defining piece of his legacy. It’s a celebration of his own insatiable hunger. Three words Woods said on Sunday evening confirmed that that’s not going away:
“Maybe next year.”