ST. LOUIS >> Tiger Woods at times looks similar to the guy who won the PGA Championship four times among his 14 major titles, except for the results.
And except for the way he began the week of the final major of the year.
He took an ice bath.
“Just trying to get some inflammation down, and just trying to get ready for the rest of the week,” Woods said today, saying only that the inflammation was “everywhere,” without elaborating what caused it. “And a lot of stretching. Did a light lift yesterday and was ready to go for today.”
Little good that did him.
Rain pounded Bellerive Country Club, twice suspending practice rounds. Woods played only five holes on the course he last saw the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a few hours before the American Express Championship was canceled.
He returns nearly as much of a mystery as when the year started.
Just over two weeks ago, Woods had full control of his shots and moved into the lead during the middle of the final round at the British Open. He was feeling so good about his game that he took an all-or-nothing shot out of a pot bunker on the 10th hole that he thought might be a deciding moment, and he pulled it off. And then he missed the birdie putt, made a double bogey on the next hole and faded away.
Still, it built even more hype about his chances heading into the PGA Championship — until he shot 73-73 on the weekend at Firestone, a course that he has dominated as much as any other.
It’s been like that all year.
He was one shot out of the lead on the back nine at consecutive tournaments in Florida, and then was never a factor at the Masters. He missed the cut in the U.S. Open, and then had a chance to win the British Open.
His health has held up nicely, especially coming off his fourth back surgery.
“There’s going to be certain days that I’m just not going to have the speed and the flexibility and the movement that I once did,” Woods said. “I’m 42 now, and I’ve had four back surgeries. So things are going to be different from day to day, and it’s just about managing it. Before, I didn’t really have any of those issues early in my career because I didn’t have a fixed point in my back. My knee used to hurt a lot, but I could play around that.”
Woods last played in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2015, when he missed the cut in the PGA for the second straight year.
Woods has never been much for moral victories, though he has said throughout the year he considers himself “blessed” simply to be playing. There have been enough moments this year, however — Carnoustie would be one of them — that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he contended at Bellerive.
“He’s got all the components of the game,” Rory McIlroy said. “He’s learned how to make a swing work for him again. He’s learning to compete again. He’s learning what you have to do on the back nine of a major on Sunday. All those things, he’s been through. He’s building up all that … I don’t want to say experience, but even though he’s won 14 of these things, if you haven’t done it for a while, you still have to re-learn a few things.”
Woods and McIlroy have won the same number of majors over the last four years — none.
McIlroy has made progress in his own right, having gone some 18 months without a victory as he coped with a rib injury until he pulled away from Woods and the rest of the field to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy since then has played in the final group three times, including at the Masters. He was in contention on the back nine at the British Open. He still has only one victory this year and feels as though he should have won more.
“In golf, you just have to be an eternal optimist,” McIlroy said. “You have to make the most of everything you have to see the positives, and just move on and forget about. And that’s what I’ve tried to do this year.”
The rain interrupted a lot of schedules.
The forecast is reasonable for the rest of the week, at least until Saturday, leaving players just one more day to study Bellerive, with its tree-lined fairways and large green complexes. Players typically take the final day of practice to get in nine holes, or maybe do light work on their games.
Woods no longer has that luxury. Time is running out, as it relates to preparing for the PGA Championship, and for a season that is being measured differently. He once said it couldn’t be a great year without winning a major. Winning tournaments still could make a good year.
“Just the fact that I’m playing the tour again, just for me to be able to have this opportunity again, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “I said this many times this year, I didn’t know if I could do this again, and lo and behold, here I am. So just coming back and being able to play at this level and compete … I’ve had my share of chances to win this year, as well, and hopefully I’ll get it done this week.”