It’s not so much that Tiger Woods began his second act when he won his first major golf title in 11 years at the Masters last month. Woods’ public image encompasses the totality of a complicated career that reached historic levels with 14 majors in an 11-year span and collapsed in epic fashion under the weight of personal problems that broke up his marriage and physical problems that nearly ended his career.
That’s what makes his comeback win at Augusta so special. Woods arrived this week for the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black with the chance for what amounts to an encore in the final phase of an all-time great career.
He is grouped in the first two rounds with defending PGA and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and current British Open champion Francesco Molinari. Woods and Koepka finished 1-2 in the PGA last August and in the Masters; Woods briefly led the British Open in the final round last July while paired with Molinari, and he was paired with third-round leader Molinari in the final group of the Masters in April.
Suddenly, Woods has the chance for new rivalries with a generation of players who grew up idolizing him. “It’s great to be part of the narrative,” Woods said at his PGA media session Tuesday morning. “My narrative spans just over 20 years . . . Because of the nature of this sport, we’re able to hang around a lot longer and still be relevant.
“A neat thing about this championship is that when Jack [Nicklaus] played his final PGA in 2000, I played with him. He said he played with Gene Sarazen in his final PGA. The fact that golf can span nearly 60, 70 years and playing careers, that’s what makes it so special.”
Woods spent time last week at Bethpage, scouting the course in detail and preparing a game plan tailored to 43-year-old Tiger as opposed to the 26-year-old version who won the 2002 U.S. Open on the Black.
“It could be a hell of a tournament,” Woods said. “This week is going to be a lot of fun with the crowds, the excitement we’ve had here. The pairing I’m involved in, it’s going to be just a boatload of fun for all of us. The fans have certainly shown their rooting interests here over the years and who they want to see play well, and hopefully, I’m one of those and can play well at the same time.”
Defending champion Koepka wasn’t quite buying the notion of a “rivalry” because of the generation gap. “It’s not like it’s a huge history,” Koepka said. “I mean, it’s just really been the last couple years. I don’t see it as a rivalry, although it is fun to play against him, best player to ever play the game . . . I’m just looking forward to playing with him. It’ll be interesting. We haven’t been paired together too much.”
Asked if Koepka’s athleticism reminds him of his younger self, Woods laughed and said he was scrawny compared to the muscular Koepka. “We’re both able to generate speed, but I did it differently,” Woods said. “I did it through whip and timing. Brooksy has just got pure power, and he’s an athlete.”
Although Koepka has not won in prolific numbers like a young Woods, he has shown the cool under pressure to win three of the past six majors. He said he’d like to push that total into double digits and sees no reason to be intimidated by Woods.
“We’re not fighting,” Koepka said. “He’s not going to knock my teeth in. He’s not going to hurt me. So what’s there to be afraid of?”
A sense of awe over how much Woods has overcome to reach major champion status once again might be more appropriate. As another of the young guns, Rory McIlroy, said of Woods: “I still don’t think people understand what he did in April, coming back with everything that he’s been through. It’s unbelievable. Whether it’s the greatest comeback in sports, that’s up for debate.
“I think he’s grateful that his kids get to see a little bit of what he was before they were around. He’s a different person . . . I think when you’re in that headspace where you’re just thankful to be out there, good things happen, and good things have started to happen for him.”
Tiger Woods’ PGA Championship history:
Wins 4 (1999, 2000, 2006, 2007)
Top 5 Finishes 8
Missed Cut 3