PGA Championship: Tiger Woods has quest for 18 majors back on track

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PGA Championship: Tiger Woods has quest for 18 majors back on track

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PGA Championship: Tiger Woods has quest for 18 majors back on track

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Tiger Woods once said he felt right at home from the first time he laid eyes on Bethpage Black, the behemoth that lies in wait in Farmingdale, N.Y.

He was smitten by the sweeping length of the course, the arduous movement from the first tee to the 18th green that requires a variety of shots to complete the round with success, and the unrelenting, difficult test each hole presents.

As someone who grew up on public courses and didn’t become a member of a private club until his riches piled up and his privacy took a hit, Woods connected with the unrestricted nature of the People’s Country Club, as Bethpage Black is known.

And success never hurts, as he won the 2002 U.S. Open on his first visit, then finished in a tie for sixth when the U.S. Open returned in 2009.

Tiger Woods kisses the 2002 U.S. Open Golf Championship trophy after winning at Bethpage Black. (Getty Images)

“This place is just something special in so many ways,” Woods said in 2009. He also finished in a tie for 38th in the 2012 Barclays at Bethpage Black, which was the first FedEx Cup event that year.

Woods will rekindle his relationship with the course when the 101st edition of the PGA Championship is conducted May 16-19, and he’ll resume his career-long hunt of Jack Nicklaus.

With his fifth Masters victory and 15th major championship win coming in April, Tiger moved ever closer to the Golden Bear’s record of 18 major titles.

It’s a quick turnaround as majors go this time of year, with the PGA Championship coming just a month after his victory in the Masters ignited a transcendent celebration the world over that was testament to Woods’ popularity.

Woods was included on the 2019 TIME 100 list of the “most influential people” in the world. And Michael Jordan said Woods’ return to the top of the golf world was the greatest comeback he’d ever seen.

President Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Tiger Woods. (Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)

President Trump honored Woods with the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week.

From a competitive standpoint, Woods chose not to build on his Masters victory immediately, as he would go straight from his Augusta National high to Bethpage Black. Woods surprisingly decided not to play the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., two weeks before the PGA Championship. That seemed like a natural fit to the rhythm of the season and the competitive edge he has always sought. He won Wells Fargo in 2007.

But at 43 and after four surgeries to his back and four to his left knee, Woods’ rest and recovery seemingly has surpassed competitive repetitions on the importance scale. Plus, he might have just needed more time to celebrate his Masters title.

After he drove off Magnolia Lane, little was seen of Woods for two weeks. He went to his restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., one night, pairing his green jacket with shorts. He spent two days shooting instructional videos and giving an extensive interview to Discovery-owned GOLFTV, an online streaming service that provides exclusive content to customers outside the United States and has a partnership with Woods.

In the interview, Woods said his win at Augusta National hadn’t completely sunk in. That’s understandable, seeing that two years ago he thought his playing career was over.

But spinal-fusion surgery gave him a second lease on life and put Nicklaus’ iconic record back in play.

Tiger Woods celebrates his Masters win with daughter Sam and son Charlie. It was his 15th major title, putting the 18 won by Jack Nicklaus in play. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

“I always thought it was possible, if I had everything go my way,” Woods said in the interview. “It took him an entire career to get to 18, so now that I’ve had another extension to my career – one that I didn’t think I had a couple of years ago – if I do things correctly and everything falls my way, yeah, it’s a possibility.”

Stuck on 14 majors for so long – since he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg – he’s stuck no more. He’s once again a major force in the majors and a favorite in any tournament he plays, for that matter.

In his last three majors, he’s finished in a tie for sixth in the British Open after taking the lead into the back nine Sunday, was second in the PGA Championship and won the Masters. Combined, he was 32 under par in the three majors – three shots better than any other player.

This season he’s hit 75.6 percent of his greens in regulation. His best GIR during his career came in 2000 at 75.2 percent. That year he won nine times, including the year’s last three majors.

“Eighteen is, I think, a lot closer than people think,” Brooks Koepka said of Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus. Koepka held off Woods in last year’s PGA Championship but fell one shot short of him in this year’s Masters. “He’s definitely back, and 18’s not far.”

Yes, Woods is back, and the comeback took hold last year when he slowly built his game back to the elite level. After a few near-misses, he won the season-ending Tour Championship.

“There was a pretty big mental hurdle for him to get over, to going from thinking you’d never play again to getting back on the PGA Tour and then winning the Tour Championship. That’s pretty incredible, after all he went through,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie for his last 10 Tour victories. “I have to believe the step he took to win the Tour Championship, his first win in five years, meant so much because it proved to him he was back.”

“He beat some of the best players in the world coming down the stretch at Augusta. It has to be huge for him,” caddie Joe LaCava (left) says of Tiger Woods’ victory in the Masters last month. LaCava has looped for Woods in 10 of his major victories. (Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports)

Then came the Masters, where for the first time in his career he came back from a deficit heading into the final round to win a major.

“If there was any doubt in his mind about winning majors again, and this is the most mentally strong player I’ve ever known, well, there is no doubt now,” LaCava said. “He beat some of the best players in the world coming down the stretch at Augusta. It has to be huge for him.”

LaCava, as does Woods, loves knowing the next major is at Bethpage Black. And the following major is the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Woods dominated the 2000 U.S. Open to win by 15 shots, won the 2000 AT&T Pro-Am and tied for fourth in the 2010 U.S. Open.

Yes, 18 is back in play.

“Bethpage sets up well for him because you have to hit some shots, you have to hit it both ways,” LaCava said. “It has some length to it, and it could play longer because it could be softer because of the time of the year, so that’s good for him. And he has just as much experience playing the course as anyone.”

LaCava knows his boss isn’t about to go overboard celebrating his Masters title, that he isn’t ready to find a rocking chair and kick up his golf shoes. Nope, LaCava knows Tiger will dig in his spikes and move forward without looking too far ahead.

“He knows you have to worry about 16 before you get to 18,” LaCava said. “It’s hard not to think about 18, especially now that he’s gotten to 15. But he’s smart enough to know the win at Augusta wasn’t a free ride to 18. He knows he has to continue to grind. And he will.” Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the May 2019 issue of Golfweek.)


   

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