LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At No. 7, Tiger Woods bent over so gingerly to pick up his tee that you wondered whether he’d get back up.
At No. 8, he leaned so heavily on his putter while retrieving a ball from the cup that the shaft bowed like a guitar string.
By then he was 3-over par for the day, a half-dozen strokes on the wrong side of the cut line with a still-sore back and one foot already out the door. Sympathy for Woods might be in short supply, but it was still sad to watch.
Sadder still, we might look back someday and remember what happened at this PGA Championship as his Willie Mays moment.
Like Woods, Mays was the greatest player of his era. But Mays was already 41 and a shell of what he used to be by the time he returned to New York to play his final two seasons for the Mets. In Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, he stumbled and fell trying to run down a ball in the outfield and said not long after, “growing old is a helpless hurt.” He batted in Game 3 and never appeared in a major league contest again.
Woods may not be done winning majors, but he’s close. He’s 38 and the physical breakdowns are gradually piling up closer together, like some slow-motion car crash. The days when he was better than everyone with every club in the bag are a fast-fading memory. He drives the ball erratically and can’t make short putts when they matter most.
Woods said Friday after shooting a second consecutive 74 that his back nearly went out on him while practicing on the range. If nothing else, his performance on the golf course afterward made that easy to believe. He made only one birdie in the first round — holing out from 100 feet with a wedge — and didn’t make his first conventional birdie until he rolled in a 12-footer on No. 15 in round two. About the only time he looked out from under the bill of his cap and up at the gallery was to acknowledge a warm ovation for his third and final birdie at No. 18.
Afterward, Woods said most of the same things he’s been saying a lot the last few years. He needs to get stronger. He needs to fix some technical flaws. His game is close to coming back together. The only revealing thing Woods said was when someone asked whether he felt old.
“I felt old a long time ago,” he replied, smiling. “It’s darn near 20 years out here.”
Golf desperately needs Woods, but now the converse is true, too. That much was clear when he rushed back to play in this tournament just a few days after he withdrew from last week’s barely able to bend over far enough to tie shoes.
Speculation ran the gamut earlier this week on what Woods genuinely hoped to accomplish: win the tournament, impress U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson enough to make the team as a wild-card pick, get enough face time to add another sponsor to his dwindling stable — take your pick. No matter what his real motivation was, he’s leaving town empty-handed yet again.
He hasn’t contended on the final nine of a major since that December day in 2009 when his SUV careened out of control down the driveway of his Florida mansion.
Woods’ critics were out in force long before then. Some portion of the audience found him too arrogant right from the start, and even after he ascended to the top of the game and tournament after tournament put on the best show in sports. Another big chunk peeled off after the scandal. Every time he’s humbled — and despite a combined eight tour wins in 2012-13, there have been no shortage of those instances — Woods gets carpet-bombed on social media and barroom conversations.
Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess. Woods said he has no idea what his schedule the rest of the year looks like. Asked what he’d tell Watson if he calls about the Ryder Cup, Woods was glib.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “He hasn’t called.”
At this point, Watson shouldn’t bother. The soon-to-be-65-year-old captain didn’t make the cut, either, but he still beat Woods here, and at last month’s British Open to boot.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.