ST. LOUIS — Truth be told, cynicism had a huge lead for a good part of this PGA Championship. Into Saturday morning, the scoffing was easy because the event looked like just another benign pitch-and-putt stop on the tour. Then, Thursday at the Bob Hope Desert Classic turned into Sunday at the Masters.
All of a sudden, a major broke out. And you know who was right in the middle of that. Score a victoryfor Tiger Woods over cynicism.
He was not personally and completely responsible for the turnaround in the vibe at the soft Bellerive Country Club, but he did raise the temperature and the volume. There was noise everywhere as he finished his rain-delayed second-round of 4-under-par 66, then shot 4-under-par 31 on the front nine of his third round. All around the course, there was extra urgency and drama.
“It kind of reminded me of being in the vortex a lot of years ago. It was awesome,” said Stewart Cink, who played in the threesome with Woods and Webb Simpson. “Being in Tiger's group is always exciting. Players try to downplay it, and I've downplayed it over the years myself. But it's a pretty intense environment out there. It's fun.”
Of course, this is not 2000 and Woods is nowhere near the same guy who beat Bob May in a playoff at the PGA Championship 18 years ago. That is almost the point of the excitement now. Fans want to relive the Woods phenomenon. Young pros who idolized him want to experience it. Woods is trying like anything to regain a majors-winning vibe after 10 years.
Add all of that up and you get the excitement that caromed around the grounds. The Woods Effect, combined with the reality that contenders realized a major title was within reach and started sweating, turned the birdie festival into, as Cink put it, an intense environment.
Woods, drained and on his third perspiration-soaked shirt following a 29-hole day, said, “It was fun. I got off to a good start, I birdied the first couple of holes there…that was nice to be able to do something like that.”
When he starts speaking as blandly as that, you know he feels like he is back on his game. During his first few tournaments after spinal fusion surgery, he waxed poetic about his happiness at being able to walk without pain and being able to play golf again. These days, he’s all business.
On this day, as has been the case repeatedly this year, he just did not have that extra gear. He had moved steadily up the leaderboard and was within two shots of first place but he just stopped making birdies after No. 8. He finished with 10 consecutive pars, the most disappointing of which occurred on the 550-yard par-5 17th hole.
He reached it in two shots and had a 19-foot, 7-inch putt for eagle. Having left many putts short on the back nine, he was determined to give this one a ride. He jolted it four feet past, then missed the birdie putt coming back. Ultimately, he was 8 under, tied for sixth, four shots behind leader Brooks Koepka.
“I could have been a little closer but I’ve got a shot going into tomorrow,” he said. “The golf course is soft, it’s gettable. You have to make birdies.”
It was no accident that the greens were the way they were. To keep bent grass from burning out in a Midwest August, you have to water them like crazy. Add to that, the PGA of America’s policy of trying not to make a course too hard and you get what we saw Friday: Pros shooting at flagsticks as if they were throwing Nerf balls at a Velcro target.
“Well, it takes the creativity on the greens away, that’s for sure. The putts are very straightforward,” Woods said.
But high-stakes pressure added the flavor that the conditions did not. Woods’ presence and his surge did not hurt that one bit. He will be in the thick of it on Sunday at a tournament that morphed into a major.