Tiger Woods’ British Open began with an ideal swing: A low punch shot down the Old Course’s forgiving first fairway, leaving just 108 yards to the hole. It should have been a routine par, maybe even a birdie if he pulled off an aggressive shot.
But when he arrived at the ball, Woods discovered that he caught a terrible break. His drive landed right in the middle of a dirt-filled divot, meaning he couldn’t predict how the ball would react off his club face. It turned out to be the worst-case scenario: Woods chunked the shot, which ended up in the Swilcan Burn guarding the front of the green. After a one-stroke penalty, a chip and then a missed 7-foot putt, Woods walked off the first hole with a double bogey.
Unlucky? Sure. A bad omen? No doubt. But this is Tiger Woods we’re talking about, a three-time British Open winner including two of them at St. Andrews. Even well past his prime, without many tournament reps as he recovers from a car accident 16 months ago that nearly damaged his right leg to the point of amputation, this is supposed to be one of the few major championship courses where he can at least hang around on the leaderboard for a little while.
That’s what Woods did at Augusta National, stealing the spotlight on Day 1 with a 71 that had him in the top-10 overnight.
But that was then, and this is now. And the more Woods plays, the more we have to ask: Is this really worth it?
For all the excitement around Woods when he returned to the Masters this year, his round of 78 Thursday was a harsh reminder of what his golf career really is at this point. On a course that was by no means easy, but certainly not hellacious, Woods beat just seven players in the field. Two of them were 50-year-old David Duval and 62-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, who only got into the field as past champions.
Even after all he has been through, it’s difficult to conceive of a 46-year-old Woods as a ceremonial participant in major championships the way Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were in their late 50s.
Though the Masters win in 2019 was a surprise, Woods had been playing good golf for a while before that tournament and up until the COVID-19 pandemic. Were it not for the car accident, he might well have had chances to add a 16th major. If his leg somehow allows him to practice and get back on tour like a real professional, maybe he can again. He’s still got a few years, after all, until he’s as old as Phil Mickelson was last spring when he won the PGA Championship.
But the physical struggle Woods is putting himself through now, only to play mediocre golf, doesn’t seem sustainable over the long haul.
This isn’t about tarnishing any legacies. Woods could finish last in every tournament he enters from now until the end of time, and it won’t change the fact that for 10-plus years, he played the game of golf better than any human who ever lived.
If Woods just wants to play when he can and enjoy the embrace of the fans and his peers without caring about results, that’s perfectly fine. But it also doesn’t seem like something one of the most maniacally competitive and focused athletes we’ve ever seen would want the twilight of his career to look like.
It would be one thing if Woods could just show up and give a representative effort, but realistically that’s not going to happen in his current condition. Physically, it’s obvious just by the sheer size of his right leg that it lacks strength and stability. There are times when it’s painful to watch him walk.
OPINION:British Open, Tiger Woods are showing LIV golfers new reality, and they won’t like it
ANALYSIS:Tiger Woods finishes 6-over in first round: Hole-by-hole analysis
And the reality for Woods is that after the amazing 71 he managed on the first day at Augusta, his scores have been what you’d expect from someone who is a shell of himself physically and doesn’t play other tournaments: 74, 78, 78 at the Masters; 74, 69, 79 before withdrawing at the PGA Championship and his 78 at St. Andrews.
If the point for Woods playing three of the four majors this year was simply to prove that he could, or somehow to have one more go before saying goodbye to the competitive portion of his career, consider it mission accomplished.
But is this building to something? Maybe that’s what Woods wanted to find out this year, to see how far away he is from truly competing. But if that’s the case, showing up on some of the world’s toughest courses without any warm-up tournaments didn’t do him any favors.
That’s what makes Thursday’s round so disheartening. If anything, these eight rounds he’s played in the majors underscore that he’s not close at all right now to doing something significant in the majors. It may take more time, effort and luck than Woods has left.
But golf is a funny sport. We’ve seen old players win big tournaments with no hint it was coming, and Woods can still strike a golf ball with the best of them. It’s the rest of it — the short game, the endurance over 72 holes and the ability to grind through tough stretches the way he used to that seems to be in his rear-view mirror.
Hopefully, if Woods has the will to keep going, there’s more to this story than what we’ve seen in 2022. But after watching how difficult it is physically for him to compete, we all need to get comfortable with the idea that it can end at any time, and that just seeing him out on the course is going to have to be a reward unto itself.
Whether it’s enough for Woods, though, is something only he will be able to answer.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.