Commentary

Tiger remains a work in progress

Updated: August 8, 2014, 12:19 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tiger Woods is a shadow of a shadow of himself. There is no other way to describe the version of Woods who grinded his way around a Valhalla Golf Club course Thursday, designed by the same man whose career major victory total now seems more distant than ever.

Woods shot a 3-over-par 74 in the opening round of the PGA Championship. It was memorable only because he and his surgically repaired back were able to complete the full 18 holes. Otherwise, it was a yawnfest.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Warren Little/Getty ImagesThe most memorable part of Tiger's opening round at the PGA Championship? It just might be that he finished all 18 holes after last week's WD in Ohio.

"It wasn't very good," said Woods, who had the look of someone trying to decide between disappointment and resignation. "A lot of bad shots and I never got a putt to the hole."

When he completed his round, his score was better than that of just 16 other players -- seven of them club pros. It was his fourth consecutive round in a major played at over par. Since returning from his March 31 back surgery, Woods has played 10 rounds. Eight were over par; five of the 10 were 3 over or worse.

The numbers make no sense. This is Tiger Woods. That's what our mental muscle memory tells us.

But then you watched him last week at the Bridgestone as the back spasms arrived and the swing disappeared. You watched him Thursday at a major when his only birdie came on a 34-yard chip-in that produced the only crowd roar he'd get all day.

He was lobbed a question about the trickle-down effects of the back problems. After all, he didn't arrive at Valhalla until Wednesday afternoon and played only nine actual practice holes.

"Well, it is what it is," he said. "I have the same opportunity as everybody else and just didn't get it done."

Woods doesn't want your sympathy. He isn't interested in your empathy. He ignores the accusations that he quit Sunday to avoid posting a bad score. Anybody who has ever suffered a back spasm knows how ridiculously ignorant that sounds.

The simple truth is this: The world rankings lie. Woods is ranked 10th, but the current state of his game wouldn't crack the top 100. He can't drive the ball with any sort of consistency. He has taken a leave of absence from his putting game. And every so often, he hits an iron shot like a guy in the C-flight of a member-guest.

This guy -- the guy whose back needed treatment after Thursday's round -- isn't Tiger Woods. Not even close. I don't know who this guy is. Nor does Woods.

He was Ranger Rick before he teed off. Striping it on the range. Feeling good about himself and his swing.

"Unfortunately, I didn't carry it to the golf course," he said.

Woods played with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington. Tiger and Phil are never going to be frat brothers, but there was no mistaking how much Mickelson respected Woods' effort Thursday. The pros know. They understand how the game can humble and humiliate you.

"I thought he played with a lot of heart," Mickelson said.

Mickelson, who still doesn't have a top-10 finish in the United States this year, shot a 2-under 69. By his standards, he's stunk it up at times.

"When you are not in contention, when you haven't won a tournament, when you haven't played the way you expect to and you are not in the final groups for a while, you get nervous," he said.

He was talking about himself, but the same applies to Woods. Woods hasn't been in a final pairing since 2013. In his past nine rounds of a major, he's been better than 38th on the leaderboard only once: a T-10 at last month's Open Championship, where he finished 69th.

Woods won't say it -- it's not how he's wired -- but there has to be a cumulative effect of being tag-teamed by injury and poor performances. You can say you're playing to win, that you expect to win -- as Woods has insisted on saying this year -- but at what point do you question your own words?

"People underestimate the self-doubt and the loss of confidence after an injury," said Jason Day, who has dealt with his own series of injuries and illnesses during the past five months. "I had a thumb injury, which is bad enough. But obviously back injuries are tough and he had to get surgery. You don't come back as sharp as you would like to ... People don't understand. No one knows what he's gone through."

Or as Harrington said of Woods: "He looked kind of raw ... not enough rounds."

It was a nice way of saying that Woods isn't Woods. It's what you say when you know a guy's game is a work in progress.

Everyone is trying to be polite about the state of Woods' game. He's earned that much and more.

Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson has made it clear he'd love to have Woods on the U.S. team that travels to Gleneagles in September. But the Woods of Aug. 7 makes it difficult, if not semi-impossible, to make a Ryder Cup case for him.

Reality is setting in, which isn't such a bad thing. Woods isn't dismissing his PGA Championship chances, but there was no talk of winning when he was done Thursday. Instead, he said his goal is to get to under par by the end of the second round.

Baby steps. Nothing wrong with baby steps.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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