DUBLIN, Ohio — The opportunities that once were in abundance — and the result often a foregone conclusion — are understandably going to come with less frequency now. Age and injury have made that a harsh reality for Tiger Woods.
But here he is at the Memorial Tournament, legitimately in contention with one round to play at Muirfield Village Golf Club, a place he once owned but where even he has found his share of frustration in recent times.
Tiger Woods at one point was tied for the lead Saturday at the Memorial, but putting woes plagued him late in Round 3. The result was a 4-under 68 that left him tied for seventh, 5 shots off the lead.
While the golf ball might not know how old he is, nor how much he has had to overcome to get to this point, it also is unfamiliar with the man who used to pounce in this situation and bully his way to victory.
Nearing five years since his last win, with four back surgeries including a spinal fusion in between and virtually two full years without competition, Woods finds himself in position to make a Sunday charge — although one considerably more challenging than his tee-to-green game suggests.
“I am definitely not taking advantage of how well I’m hitting it,” Woods said Saturday after three-putt bogeys on two of his last three holes dropped him down the leaderboard and left him seething as he signed his scorecard for a 68, five shots out of the lead.
The past two days have been the best Woods has hit the ball in his nine-tournament, 33-round comeback in 2018. He has hit 29 of 36 greens, and two of his missed greens on Friday were balls that were on the fringe.
Woods ranks first in the field in strokes gained, approach to the green, a statistic the PGA Tour uses to gauge how players are faring against their peers. He also ranks first in proximity to the hole, averaging 22 feet, 11 inches.
Another excellent sign is more anecdotal. Woods is hitting numerous approach shots pin high, a sign that he is hitting his irons the proper distances he wants.
“I had total control of what I was doing out there and just didn’t finish it off,” he said.
And therein lies the problem. Woods is not putting well. He ranked 80th in strokes gained putting out of 81 players who made the cut with -5.675. That means he is giving up more than 5½ shots to the field on the greens through three rounds. Or roughly the difference between being 9 under par and 15 under par — if he simply were average on the greens.
So is it a matter of a few putts dropping for Woods to be right there? Possibly. There is no guarantee he will hit the ball as well again.
When Woods was asked Saturday if his game is good enough to win at this point, he answered with perhaps the most testy response he has given at all 33 of the post-round media gatherings he has stood for in 2018.
“Well, I was at 11 under par,” he said of the point where he was tied for the lead through 15 holes Saturday. “And I wasted a bunch of shots the last two days and I was 4 over par in the first round [through seven holes], so you do the math.”
Sure, it realistically adds up to Woods possibly leading — or being a lot closer to the lead — had he been more efficient. Of course, every player laments a score that could have been, should have been better.
“He’s hitting his irons unbelievable,” said Patrick Reed, the reigning Masters champion who played with Woods on Saturday. “He’s able to control his ball, not just left and right, but also trajectories and spins. His ballstriking looks really good.
“The scary thing is everyone knows Tiger for being such a good putter. He really hasn’t shown that this week and still shooting the numbers he is. That’s how well he’s hitting the golf ball.”
Jack Nicklaus suggested earlier this week that Woods needed to learn how to win again — that while he has dealt with injury and inactivity over the past several years, a slew of players have stepped into the void and gained the confidence that victories bring.
“He has to get through the barrier of not having done it for a while,” said Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament founder. “When you haven’t won that always happens and that’s human nature. But when you’ve got a guy who is as good as he is and as competitive as he is, he’ll break through that barrier.”’
Woods said that the mental hurdle was not an issue.
“The last few times that I’ve had a chance, I’ve been up there on the board, I’ve felt very comfortable,” he said. “Hopefully, I can just shoot the low round when I need it.”
He pointed to the Valspar Championship, where he finished second in March by a stroke to Paul Casey. But Woods made just two birdies in the final round. A week later at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, when he had pulled within a stroke of the lead on the back nine, he pumped his drive out of bounds at the 16th hole.
Woods might feel comfortable when he nears the top of a leaderboard, but his results have yet to follow.
Last month at the Players Championship, Woods was probably too far back to win. But for a time he was just 4 strokes behind eventual winner Webb Simpson, then missed the 14th and 17th greens with a sand wedge, losing 3 shots to par.
There does still seem to be the issue of closing out rounds. On Thursday, he rallied to get back to even par after starting 4 over through seven holes. But he has had trouble with closing nines in four of his past five rounds, including Saturday.
“It’s close,” Reed said. “He missed a lot of short putts today, hit a couple good ones, but for him it easily could have been 7 or 8 under par without blinking.”
This is the closest Woods has been to the lead through 54 holes since the Arnold Palmer Invitational, when he was 5 back of Henrik Stenson but eventually finished 8 behind Rory McIlroy and tied for fifth.
A week earlier, Woods trailed Corey Conners by 1 stroke at Innisbrook, shot 1-under-par 70 and finished a stroke back of Casey.
Woods has come a long way since then, but reality suggests this is too much to ask. To suggest, however, that he can’t do it would be folly — and would certainly get an agitated rebuttal from Woods.