TULSA, Okla. — It was the most furious Tiger Woods had looked in quite some time.
Woods had just made birdie at Southern Hills’ par-4 10th to sneak one shot inside the cut line. But at the moment of impact with his 8-iron on the 11th tee, he knew he’d made a fatal mistake.
Woods didn’t even watch the ball to its apex. His eyes dropped to the ground. The ball landed long and left, hit the downslope and kicked longer and lefter, settling in the long grass just shy of the penalty area.
Seeing red, Woods stormed over to the right side of the tee. With a swift chopping motion, he slammed the club off the cart path beside the tee. The sound of metal on asphalt was jarring. This was a quick, succinct punishment for an iron that had done him unspeakable wrong. If you’d wondered how much Woods cared about making the cut at the PGA Championship, here was the evidence you needed. Plenty more followed.
Heading into Friday the only chatter surrounding Woods were rumors that he might withdraw. He’d looked unwell as he hobbled through the second nine of his opening-round 74, after all. He was having a tough time turning and shifting weight, two essential elements of the golf swing.
“If that would have been me, I would have been considering pulling out and just going home,” said playing partner Rory McIlroy.
That wasn’t in Woods’ plans.
Neither was the double bogey at 11, however. When he tapped in, one-handed and disgusted, the cut line was hovering at four over par. Woods had just gone from three over to five. Players that fall on the wrong side of the cut line don’t tend to come back.
Our next bit of evidence as to Woods’ interest comes from Joe LaCava, Woods’ ever-dependable caddie. I asked him about the club-slam on 11.
“He was pretty fired up,” he said. “He knew he was sorta going the wrong direction there.”
As for the charge that followed?
“Same old story. He’s the ultimate grinder. He brought it back.”
If your only measure of success for Woods is winning another major championship, Friday may not have been for you. But if you’re every bit as intrigued by this version of Woods, the 46-year-old made of metal and stubbornness, his race to the Friday cut line was something to behold.
Woods brought it back indeed. He hit it left again on No. 12, a disappointing miss LaCava called a “toe-flip” that left a short-sided bunker shot. He raced that one 14 feet past the pin, but he studied the comebacker and poured it in. His hopes at the weekend — and those of the crowd in the surrounding bleachers — were still alive.
It got even better after that. At 13, Woods needed to skirt a branch on his approach shot so he went for a low hook sand wedge, a creative specialty of his, that landed and spun hard left, coming to a stop some eight feet past the hole. Birdie. Back on the cut line.
Coming home he made the tough shots look easy and the easy shots look tough. A poor chip at 14 left him with another 14-footer. He made that, too. At 15 he found the greenside bunker and skittered it out to three feet. That was Woods’ favorite shot of the day. He described it later with a giant grin on his face.
“That was a tasty little bunker shot there,” he said. “That was a good one. I liked that one.”
Woods had 209 yards left into his approach on No. 16. He hit it to four feet. When he poured in the putt he was suddenly a shot inside the cut line again. The crowd roared. It exhaled, too.
A half-hour later Rob McNamara, Tiger Woods’ right-hand man, stood beside the elevated clubhouse and gazed out over the scene on the 18th green. There was Woods, staring down a 30-footer for birdie, ringed by an amphitheater of fans and media.
I mentioned the rumors I’d heard, how this was quite the development. People had been muttering, I told him, about Woods’ potential WD.
“They don’t understand T-Dub,” he said.
The round was a triumph and an accomplishment, regardless of the fact that Woods got the favorable side of the draw and is T53, 12 shots off the lead held by Will Zalatoris. The fact that he’s entering the weekend at all is impressive enough. Just don’t expect him to admit it.
“Well, you can’t win the tournament if you miss the cut. I’ve won tournaments — not major championships, but I’ve won tournaments on the cut number,” he said. “There’s a reason why you fight hard and you’re able to give yourself a chance on the weekend. You just never know when you might get hot.”
There may soon come a day when Woods booking a weekend tee time won’t be cause for celebration or even note. But we’re not there yet. And even if Woods meant exactly what he said, and he only enjoyed the day because it meant he still technically has a chance to win the golf tournament, well, that’s okay.
There are plenty of others who will enjoy it for him.