OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. >> Tiger Woods at Olympia Fields brought concerns about the state of his game.
That was the case 17 years ago going into the U.S. Open. Never mind that Woods was the defending champion. He had gone all of four tournaments without winning. At that stage in his career, it was enough to raise questions about a slump.
Not much has changed this week at the BMW Championship, with a slight change in the narrative. It’s not about whether he can win a major. It’s whether he can avoid another early end to his PGA Tour season.
Woods has gone four tournaments outside the top 35 — three of those since golf returned from the COVID-19 pandemic in June — and he likely needs to finish among the top four against a 69-man field to reach the Tour Championship. The top 30 advance to East Lake to compete for a $15 million prize.
“I have to play well. I have to earn my way to East Lake,” said Woods, who is No. 57 in the FedEx Cup. “I haven’t done so yet and need a big week in order to advance. If I don’t, then I go home. This is a big week for me. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing and competing.”
He’ll be doing that on a course that is only familiar in its look — tree-lined, a few elevated greens, fairways framed by rough that can cover the top of his shoes and quick, contoured greens.
But then, it’s not familiar to many at the second of three FedEx Cup postseason events. Woods, Charles Howell III, Adam Scott and Paul Casey are the only players who competed in that 2003 U.S. Open (Woods tied for 20th). Bryson DeChambeau won the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields, which featured five other players in the BMW Championship field, including PGA champion Collin Morikawa.
Harris English won a college tournament here a decade ago.
“I remember how great a test it was,” English said. “It’s just a tough golf course. I don’t think you’re going to see the scores like you did last week. … It’s going to be a good warm-up for the other tournaments coming up, with the Tour Championship and then the U.S. Open. I know we’re all excited to be here.”
Last week was Dustin Johnson overwhelming the field and the course at the TPC Boston, winning by 11 shots and finishing at 30-under 254, one shot away from two 72-hole scoring records on the PGA Tour.
That put Johnson atop the FedEx Cup standings, and he’s not likely to fall far. For some, this week is about improving their position going to the Tour Championship, which features a staggered start to par. The No. 1 seed starts the week at 10 under, down to even par for the final five players.
Because of the shorter season from having lost three months to the coronavirus pandemic, the points count only triple instead of quadruple, and movement isn’t as severe. The top 20 or so are locked into East Lake.
Among those on the bubble are Tony Finau at No. 29, and players like Patrick Cantlay (No. 37) and U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (No. 39) who have ground to make up.
For Woods, the math is simple. He needs a top finish or he has two weeks off ahead of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which wouldn’t be the worst dilemma he has faced.
If it took time for Woods to remember the holes, the routing might confuse him. The course was reconfigured for the U.S. Open because the closing holes don’t have a lot of room for thousands of fans, much less hospitality structures. But when the BMW Championship had to do without fans, the routing was returned to the way it is for the members.
Regardless of the order of holes, they are strong.
“We’ve played a lot of short and soft golf courses, and this is far from short and soft,” Thomas said. “For the most part, I think there’s a reason this place held a U.S. Open. It’s kind of in a league of its own in my opinion.”
Woods played the back nine alone late Tuesday afternoon, and he played the front nine this morning with Rory McIlroy, with whom he played the final two rounds at TPC Boston last week.
Woods said he looked at few videos of Olympia Fields before he arrived. The course is longer. That much was evident when he had to walk back 150 yards from the green to the next tee. Holes that once required irons off the tee might allow the biggest hitters to go with driver to reach wider portions of the fairway.
If he doesn’t make it to East Lake, it sounds as though this might be a good tune-up for Winged Foot.
“I have to get the ball in play here and the put the ball in the right spots,” he said. “This golf course is set up more toward an Open than it is anything else.”