There was a backup at the rental car center adjacent Oklahoma City’s airport on Sunday afternoon. There were plenty of Hertz customers but not enough cars to satisfy their needs; a disgruntled queue formed awaiting a fleet of returns.
Two employees noticed several golf bags among the assembled.
“We still haven’t seen him,” one said, disappointed. “No Tiger Woods yet.”
“He’ll probably get in tomorrow,” the other replied knowingly. “I don’t think it starts until Thursday.”
They noticed I was watching, so I nodded agreement. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Woods would definitely not be going to Tulsa via Oklahoma City, which is some 90 minutes by car. Woods may not remember the last time he flew commercial, and it’s possible he has never actually stood in line at a Hertz counter. Plus there was the little detail that Woods was, in fact, already on the course at Southern Hills. But the golf world is coming to Oklahoma, and that’s worth celebrating, details be damned.
This is all a way of saying that I did not see Tiger Woods arrive at Southern Hills on Sunday afternoon. I did not watch his plane land in Tulsa. But I learned more about his golfing future nonetheless.
Let’s start with the most obvious and work from there. First, Woods is playing in this week’s PGA Championship. When he finished the Masters, we didn’t know when his next start would come. We had a better sense that he’d play Southern Hills after he took an advance scouting mission in late April. But now we know for sure: he’s here and he’s here to play.
What we know, too, is that this appears to be Woods’ new blueprint. Before the Masters he took a trip up to Augusta, walked the course and felt things out. Then he returned the Sunday before the tournament to hit balls and walk a nine-hole practice round.
Same deal with the PGA: Early scouting trip, Sunday arrival, nine-hole practice round. The point here isn’t that Woods is reinventing the wheel — he has always made a point of peaking for majors, he has made a habit of seeing the courses beforehand and has even regularly arrived the Sunday prior — but instead that Woods is carefully metering out his time and practice to play the important events as best he can. That means the majors and not much else. We’ll see if that also means other events like the Memorial, and we’ll see if Woods also prioritizes prep for the U.S. Open. (We know he’s gearing up for St. Andrew’s.) But we’re seeing him execute the plan he has described, a Hogan-esque limited schedule.
We learned other things secondhand on Sunday, too, handy details from on the ground. Other reporters made it a point to arrive in lockstep with Woods, and so some of the Tour’s most reliable voices, like Bob Harig of Sports Illustrated, Steve DiMeglio of Golfweek and Geoff Shackelford of the Quadrilateral, tailed his round.
Shackelford reported in his newsletter that Woods did indeed look stronger and showed it, too, when he busted a 357-yard drive down No. 2. He snapped a slow-mo swing, too:
He described a player testing out a variety of shot shapes including his patented stingers. He also posted a photo of Woods’ latest footwear: an updated version of the FootJoy shoes he debuted at the Masters.
Harig’s SI story added testimony from Woods, who said he feels better and “a lot stronger” than he did at Augusta. He also described his recovery from that first week back.
“We went back to work on Tuesday; Monday was awful,” he said. “I did nothing and Tuesday was leg day. So we went right back after it. Everything is better.”
DiMeglio included some words from Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava, who visited Woods in Florida as part of their advance work. He described their sessions as a mix of practicing and playing. LaCava added that he thinks Woods has continued to progress.
“Other than the fact that he won here in 2007, I think it’s the stamina and endurance thing that excites him the most,” LaCava told him.
So there was plenty to learn from Woods’ return, even if we weren’t there to see it. We know a little more about what to expect this week. We know a little more about what to expect this year. We know he expects he’ll continue to improve even while we know he’ll continue to limp, and we know he’s fighting through some pain every time he tees it up. Now we’re one day closer to learning the answer to our next question:
What’s he going to shoot when he does?