Tiger Woods struggles with old enemies of weather and bad back

Sean Ingle at Royal Portrush
Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s just the way it is,” said Tiger Woods softly. “And it’s just the way it is going to be.”

The world’s greatest golfer had just trudged off the 18th, beat and sore having shot a seven-over-par 78 which left him tied for 144th at the Open. And here he was, indicating with Kissingeresque realism, that his back was troubling him again, especially on days when the chill seeps into bone and sinew.

Were you in pain, he was asked. A nod. “I’m sore, yes.”

Are there certain shots you can’t hit due to physical reasons? “Yes, there are,” he admitted. “It’s just father time and the procedures I have had.”

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Long before the end the famous Tiger walk had become a pained plod. Every time he hit an iron the lingering effects of four back surgeries seemed to bite. And up close, as Woods struggled to pick his ball out of the hole, it seemed scarcely believable that his brilliant Masters victory at Augusta was three months and not three lifetimes ago. If anything, his 15th major seems like even more of a miracle now.

“I’m going to have days like this,” he said. “I have to fight through. I fought through, but I just did not post a very good score.”

This performance was partly foretold. Since winning the Masters in April, Woods has played just three events in an attempt to protect his body. But he was so poor during his practice round on Monday that one observer pledged to stick £1,000 on him missing the cut.

History was against Woods too. The last person not to play after the US Open and then lift the Claret Jug was Johnny Miller in 1976.

The cooling temperatures were another gigantic red flag. This week the Wall Street Journal pointed out that since 2017 Woods has averaged sixth place in tournaments when the temperature is over 75F (23C), a 24th-placed finish when it is between 65-75F, and a 46th-placed one when it is below 65F.

It was a good deal colder than that when Woods’s name was announced, and to make matters worse the weather flitted from sun to squalls, and chilly to windy during his first hour of play. Four seasons in one day? More like in four holes.

Woods looked stiff as he warmed up on the 1st tee, and his lack of rotation with his swing was evident as he clunked his tee shot into the rough on the left and sent his second into a bunker. A respectable approach to 20ft and a fine putt saved his par but there was no great acknowledgment of the crowd’s cheers. Instead he seemed to be grimacing.

“My warm-up wasn’t very good,” he admitted. “I had a hard time moving. I was just trying to piece together a swing that would get me around the golf course. All of a sudden I made one of the best pars you’ll see on one. That was a pretty good start but it was kind of downhill from there.”

The slide did not come immediately. Woods saved par on the par-five 2nd, should have birdied the par-three 3rd after a lovely tee shot to eight feet, and also had a chance for birdie at the 4th. But then the wheels came completely off with five bogeys in six holes.

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The nadir came at the 592-yard par-five 7th as he kept ploughing in and out of the rough down the left. After his second shot had disappeared from view he forlornly asked his caddie: ‘What’s it like?’ The crowd’s silence quickly provided an answer. Then he tried to hit a 230-yard shot into the green with a long iron only to clatter it into a bank and see it go 20 yards. It was a minor miracle he escaped with six.

It wasn’t quite his worst round at the Championship – the infamous 81 when a gale ripped through Muirfeld in 2002 was more painful on the scorecards at least. But at least Woods was good-humoured enough to celebrate the sole birdie in his round on the 15th, licking his finger and sticking it up in the air after rattling in a 30-footer.

Before the tournament Woods had suggested that this Championship was the best chance of adding to his 15 major titles because links golf is as much about brain as brawn.

But his physical problems left him with a conundrum that even he could not solve on the day – and maybe not in the years ahead.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult,” he said. “I’m not 24 any more. Life moves on. I can’t devote the hours to practice like I used to – stand on the range for four or five hours, play 36 holes, go running when I come back, then go to the gym. I have to be realistic. I peaked at Augusta and hopefully I can peak a few more times this year.”

Thousands will be urging him on, just like they did on a changeable day in Portrush. But on this evidence Woods has another mountain to climb.