LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A fan wearing a Chicago Cubs hat caught in the crush around the third tee at Valhalla Golf Club raised both hands above his head to show off an Illinois license plate. It read: "TIGR WDS."
For those who questioned the wisdom of Woods returning to practice Wednesday, just three days after a bad back forced him to quit his last tournament mid-round, it seemed like an omen — and not a particularly good one. The unofficial motto of those sad-sack Cubs, after all, is "Wait 'til next year."
I'm not a doctor, but it sounds like good advice to me.
Woods has played only nine full competitive rounds since surgery at the end of March to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve. His best finish this season is a tie for 25th. He withdrew from two other tournaments and missed the cut in a third. He has always said winning majors is what matters most and his chances of sneaking past the field to capture this week's PGA Championship — with less than a full round of practice under his belt — are about the same as the Cubs have to steal the pennant.
"It's a totally different golf course than what I played in 2000," said Woods, who won the PGA here that year in a playoff with Bob May. "These greens are all different. I have my book from 2000; it's useless. There's some new things that we have to learn out there.
"Joey (LaCava, Woods' caddie) has been here on the ground. He's got a pretty good handle on it," he added. "We'll run through some more of it as we go."
At this point, it's worth noting that he's not the Tiger Woods of 2000, either. It's hard to imagine that guy even talking about trying to win a major on the fly. Back then, preparation was his hallmark and Woods was collecting majors at such a furious pace that he seemed to be on cruise control in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors. That was true even after he won the 14th — and so far last — of his majors by beating Rocco Mediate, despite playing on a broken leg, in the 2008 U.S. Open.
Then the sex scandal of 2009 turned Woods' life and career upside down. What followed was a run of questionable decisions, compounded by more injuries. He won eight tournaments the last two full seasons he has played but hasn't seriously contended on the final nine of a major in five years. On top of that, he lost nearly all of his major sponsors, save Nike, and hasn't had much luck attracting new ones.
I'm not a psychologist, either, so I can only speculate about what Woods' motivation might be for rushing back to tournament play after the rough patch he has endured. But my guess is that at age 38, Woods is increasingly nervous about the game he helped grow moving on without him. He's already watched a generation of youngsters he inspired to take up the game blow their tee shots past his. It must be an unsettling feeling.
As golfing rewards go, the only two big ones still out there this season are the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. After his practice session, Woods was asked whether he can win this week and he answered tersely, "Yes."
"What do you need to do," came a follow-up question, "to do that?"
Woods was not much more revealing.
"Hit it well and make every putt."
At the moment, qualifying for the U.S. Ryder Cup team is not a realistic goal, either. The top nine U.S. players in the points race qualify automatically and Woods currently ranks 69th, sandwiched between two guys — Troy Merritt and Luke Guthrie — you've likely never heard of.
In most years, Woods would be a lock for one of U.S. captain Tom Watson's three wild-card selections. Instead, they've played a cat-and-mouse game in public the past few weeks, with Woods saying that he's worthy of the pick and Watson saying he won't commit either way until the formal announcement of the team on Sept. 2.
"I can't answer that yet," Watson said again Wednesday at Valhalla, where he's in the field. "A lot of things can happen between now and then."
Like Michael Jordan, the Chicago sporting great to whom Woods has been compared, it's hard to think of him setting foot on a golf course just for the sake of "being out there." It's sad to see, but it happens to the very best of them.