Tiger Woods’ Thursday was rough. Here’s why Friday will be riveting

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods looks on during the first round of the PGA Championship Thursday.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tiger Woods doesn’t have the type of game required to win this PGA Championship. Not this week, at least, on this course in these conditions. Valhalla is calling for firepower. Not just birdies, but birdie binges. Tiger is 48 years old, and 10 shots back of the No. 3 player in the world, who just made a 62 look easy. 

But that’s no reason to fret! That’s really just fine. The greatest winner golf has ever seen doesn’t forever need to be a winner to be fascinating. Tiger Woods the grinder is just as interesting. 

Woods carded an opening one-over 72 Thursday at Valhalla, which he couldn’t have loved but will make ESPN directors happy. It is good enough for him to be tied 88th, guaranteeing Woods a go at the cutline (top 70 and ties) for much (if not all) of his second round. We know TV folks love Woods, but they love it even more when his golf is relevant. There will be plenty of time to show Xander Schauffele shots over the weekend. 

Woods doesn’t have the muscle that the game’s best have these days, but even in his older age, even in his post-accident life, even as his body continues to derail aspects of his golfing routine, the man makes cuts. He’s played five major championships and one Genesis Invitational since his near-fatal car crash in 2021 and has gone five for six.

Remember the old man’s game he showed at Augusta in 2022? Missing greens left and right but mostly short — chipping his butt off and rolling in 10-footers for par. A 71 and a 74 that said, I know how to play this course. (The pair of weekend 78s didn’t matter.) A month later, Woods’ body was telling him to quit. The hills of Southern Hills didn’t agree with his surgically-saved ankle. Woods shot four over in the first round, nursing a considerable limp, but forgot about his lower half Friday and made magic with his hands. Sand saves, 14-footers for par, an up-and-down from 209 — that round had it all, whipping Tulsa into a frenzy with two evening birdies, making the cut on the number amid whispers that Woods would withdraw.

“Same old story,” said his then-caddie, Joe LaCava. “He’s the ultimate grinder. He brought it back.”

Woods shot 79 on Saturday and withdrew — Jason Day later said a screw in Woods’ ankle had broken through his skin — but he made that damn cut. 

Woods’ next chase came a year later, back at Augusta National. Thunderstorms pushed the second round to Saturday morning, where players were forced to play in a downpour, hitting 3-woods where they might normally pull 6-iron. Forty-seven-year-old, creaky, soon-to-receive-surgery Woods winced with each step, rain pelting his face; he occasionally used his clubs as a cane. (The hills of Southern Hills have nothing on the hills of Augusta National.) Woods laid up on the 15th and bounced his approach off the flag, calling into question if he’d been able to snag a much-needed birdie. The 30-footer dropped, as they often have for golf’s greatest grinder. An hour later he reached the clubhouse with another cut made on the number, this time a record-tying 23rd straight at the Masters. His protégés, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, both flamed out and left the property perplexed.

Woods wasn’t confused. He’d have season-ending surgery just weeks later, but in that moment he knew how to reach the weekend. On some level, it’s simple: tie for 70th or better. But as with all things in this sport, there is push and pull. It’s about understanding when to stay patient, when to hold on through the bumpy stretch and when to hit the gas. It’s innate to Woods but not to everyone, and you’ll see Woods do it again on Friday. He’ll move around Valhalla like a racecar driver, maneuvering through wrecks and accelerating out of caution flags. His car can’t go as fast as the others, but he can drive it into position if you let him. And no one seems to be able to do it like Woods does. That’s where the theater is for us. That unfathomable record of 142-straight cuts made on the PGA Tour, that’s his. A preposterous career mark of 85 percent cuts-made in the majors, that’s his. He’s aware of it all, too. 

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But is there something we just can’t see? A derivative art form to getting a tee time on the weekend that we (and other pros) couldn’t possibly understand? I put the question to the man Thursday, after he’d signed for that 72.

“Well, you can’t win a tournament unless you make the cut,” Woods said. “That’s the whole idea is get to the weekend so that you can participate and have a chance to win.

“I’ve been on the cut number and have won tournaments, or I’ve been ahead and leading tournaments and I’ve won tournaments. But you have to get to the weekend in order to win a golf tournament.”

Yes, of course. It’s all about winning, and reaching the checkpoint on the path to winning. To get from A to C, you must first get to B. Perhaps on another day, when Woods hadn’t just three-putted … twice … he would have been more interested in breaking down the nuances of what it takes. Thankfully, another scribe prompted Woods to discuss what he’s most proud of when he doesn’t win.

It’s the cuts. That streak. Mr. I’m Here to Win might not like to admit it, but there’s fulfillment to be found in something less than victory.

“You have to just grind it out,” Woods said. “It’s a marathon. Major championships are a long grind. It’s just plotting along. It’s not a sprint. It’s just a grind.”

A marathon indeed, even for those watching at home. There’ll be plenty of time to pay attention to what Xander, Rory and Brooks are doing at the top of the leaderboard. For Friday at least, there’ll be magic in the middle. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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