Of all the skills Tiger Woods has employed in amassing 15 major titles, his ability to handle the chaos that generally surrounds him has often set him apart.
This week in the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, he’ll have to deal with the biggest distraction of his career – nothing. Nothing at all. No fans. No roars. No “You da man!” No hands reaching out to touch him as he walks between holes.
In the weirdest way, the pandemic has robbed Tiger Woods of his greatest superpower – focus.
“That’s an unknown,” he said of the lack of major championship atmosphere. “I don’t think anyone in our generation has ever played without fans in a major championship. It’s going to be very different, but it’s still a major championship and still the best players in the world. We know that going into it so there’ll be plenty of energy from the competitive side. As far as energy outside the ropes, that’s an unknown. Hopefully I can put myself in that position where I can feel what it feels like with no fans coming down the stretch to win.”
Woods and everyone will be playing their first major championship in 382 days this week in the fog and chill of San Francisco. Many players have had up to nine weeks of getting used to the quiet world of tournament golf since the PGA Tour rebooted in its bubble after the pandemic shutdown.
Woods, however, has played only four rounds at the Memorial Tournament since February. He’s only played three tournaments all year, the first two in California at Torrey Pines and Riviera before the shutdown. Only three of his 12 tournament rounds this year have broken 70 – all three of them 69s before he shut things down himself before the pandemic did it for everyone else. Four of those 12 rounds are 76 or higher, including a pair of 76s at Memorial when he complained of back stiffness despite the five-month layoff.
The forecast for San Francisco this week is not exactly what the stiff back doctor ordered – cool and damp, with highs in the upper 60s “I feel good,” he said. “Obviously I haven’t played much competitively but I’ve been playing a lot at home. Just trying to get my way back into this part of the season. It’s what I’ve been gearing up for with a lot of big events.”
While his competitive resume is woefully short this season, Woods’ on-course prep this week will be ahead of most of the field. Having skipped last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, he got a head start at Harding Park. He arrived on Sunday and – after he and caddie Joe LaCava passed their COVID-19 tests – he got in a quiet 18-hole practice round in during the afternoon.
Woods hasn’t been a factor in a major since his comeback major triumph at the Masters in 2019. He missed the cut at last season’s PGA and Open Championship and was a tied for pedestrian 21st in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he’d won by 15 to launch his Tiger Slam run in 2000.
He does have positive history to draw from at Harding Park, across town from where he went to college at Stanford. In 2009, he went unbeaten in the Presidents Cup there. In 2005, he won the WGC-American Express Championship in a raucous playoff against John Daly.
“It was loud; people were into it,” he said.
It won’t be loud this week, but Woods insists he’ll still be into it.
“As far as energy when I’m competing and playing, that’ll be the same,” he said. “I’m pretty intense when I play and pretty into what I’m doing.”