Tiger Woods still has some time to save a wasted year

Golf

Their relationship might seem a bit peculiar, but clearly Tiger Woods sees something in Bryson DeChambeau that might amuse, entertain, intrigue — or all of the above.

They are frequent practice-round partners, and it is not often that someone whom Woods does not care to have in such settings steps into that world. And so it has been happening, more than a few times, going back to Woods’ reemergence on the scene in 2018 following spinal fusion surgery.

The duo were grouped in a nine-hole practice round again last week at Winged Foot, and it was the closest the 15-time major champion would be to the soon-to-be U.S. Open winner as they quickly went their separate ways on the leaderboard.

DeChambeau got himself into contention heading into the weekend while Woods was cleaning out his locker and heading home after a missed cut. And amid all the hoopla surrounding his first major championship victory, even DeChambeau might be wondering: What happened to Tiger?

Where is the golfer who less than a year ago was as close to No. 1 in the world as DeChambeau is now?

The one who shot consecutive 64s — one after opening with three straight bogeys — on his way to his 82nd PGA Tour victory at the Zozo Championship in Japan?

The one who, after a slow start, contended in his own Hero World Challenge before finishing fourth — where DeChambeau was 15th out of 18 players?

The one who was the best player at the Presidents Cup, going to 3-0, and captained the team to a close victory in Australia — where DeChambeau was deemed not good enough to participate in more than one of the team matches and went 0-1-1 overall?

Woods has played just seven tournaments since then, and aside from a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, it has pretty much been a disaster. Back stiffness led to a last-place finish among those who made the cut at the Genesis Invitational, and Woods then skipped a few tournaments he might have played in the spring prior to the coronavirus shutdown.

That, in a golf sense, was viewed as an opportunity to buy Woods some time. When he played in a charity exhibition in May with Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, all appeared fine. Woods’ game looked smooth, his swing strong. It was just a matter of time, it was thought, before he’d be back contending again.

But Woods waited six weeks into the PGA Tour’s restart to play again, understandably a bit leery about venturing out in the world amid the pandemic. The results have been futile. He’s been out of every event by the weekend, his best result a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship, where he needed a final-round 67 — his second-best score in 18 post-shutdown rounds — to finish that well.

The stats don’t look much better. Woods ranked 122nd in strokes gained off the tee, 121st in strokes gained total, 183rd in strokes gained putting. He was fourth in strokes gained approach, a nod to his still-impressive iron play, but still just 156th in greens in regulation, hitting just 64.8%.

During this time, DeChambeau became the talk of golf because of his bulked up body, enormous drives and now two victories that have seen him jump to fifth in the world.

Woods was impressed before DeChambeau won at Winged Foot.

“He’s figured out a way to increase distance and maximize his efficiency,” Woods said. “If I look back at when I first started playing the tour, we didn’t have TrackMans; we didn’t have launch monitors. Guys were learning how to bend clubs on their knee to try and take loft off of it. That’s now changed.

“You have all these different launch-monitor technologies and you can set up a whole bunch of balls, figure out the shafts and the conditions that you want to maximize carry. What Bryson has done is no easy task. He’s put in the time and has put in the reps and he’s figured it out.”

Woods has had to spend considerable time figuring out his equipment, too. Probably more than we know.

But can he really put in the time practicing?

His effort at the U.S. Open showed all manner of deficiencies, including an inability to put the ball in the fairway enough off the tee, iron play that was a level below his standards when he was in the fairway, and short-game execution that might have saved him a few strokes.

The ultimate in frustration was apparent when he stood off the 18th green on Friday, having two days in a row attempted to hit a flop shot that rolled back to his feet that led to a double bogey.

Woods actually putted well and he made enough birdies — seven — through two rounds to be competitive, save for the inordinate number of mistakes.

Now what?

We’re seven weeks from the start of the Masters, where Woods’ delayed title defense will take place in a first-ever playing of the tournament in November at Augusta National.

And aside from his one-day appearance Tuesday at an event called the Payne’s Valley Cup, it is likely he will play just once during that span prior to the Masters, in the Zozo Championship at Sherwood Country Club, where the event has been moved from Japan for this year.

That doesn’t seem enough.

You can bet DeChambeau will tee it up at least a few times during this stretch in and around all of the protein shakes, weightlifting sessions and countless hours on the driving range.

Rory McIlroy will play at least twice, as will Justin Thomas and countless others.

Woods seems content with the less-is-more philosophy, one that doesn’t seem to be suiting him so well these days.

First, a couple of disclaimers. As is always the case with Woods, you have to allow for the fact that a 44-year-old man with shared custody of two kids might have other issues behind the scenes that impact his professional life.

There is also the matter of the TGR company he runs along with a charitable foundation and all manner of corporate responsibilities. They might be easy for us to dismiss, but those factors are real.

And, of course, there are the back issues. There’s really been just one time when Woods acknowledged a problem, and it was during the second round of the Memorial Tournament in July. He talked about it being one of those days, that some are better than others, that it is part of his life. And it clearly impacts his ability to prepare for tournaments.

But rarely will Woods have gone to Augusta National with so little tournament prep if he sticks to just the Zozo event. That would mean one tournament in the seven weeks leading up to the Masters. Last year, he played three in the seven weeks prior and four if you go out eight weeks. It was the same in 2018.

Sure, he won the Zozo last year after a nine-week break. He tied for 15th at the 2015 Masters after taking the previous nine weeks off to deal with short-game issues.

But does that seem feasible now?

Perhaps Woods will consider adding the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, the South Korea tournament that has been moved to Las Vegas and is the week prior to the Zozo. Or he could play the regular Las Vegas tour stop the week prior to Shadow Creek. But the latter event is also a 78-player field — like the Zozo — with no cut, assuring Woods of eight pre-Masters tournament rounds at courses he knows against strong fields.

This, after considerable optimism, has been a lost year for Woods. Maybe that is how he views it and is simply looking to better days in 2021, when he will be 45.

Then again, the Masters always means something to him, especially this title defense. His victory in 2019 was one of the game’s most popular wins, an emotional triumph that still brings him great satisfaction. The course remains the best chance for him to add to his total of 15 majors, if he can simply get his game to cooperate.

No matter how it plays out, you can bet there will be a practice round in the days leading up to the tournament with DeChambeau at a deserted Augusta National.

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