Dublin, Ohio: As if to help out with the human mind’s yearning for frivolity to dilute the 2020 anxiety, the Memorial Tournament spent Friday afternoon offering some invaluable inconsequence. It centred on a question welcome in its mundanity. Would Tiger Woods make the cut?
From noonish to 6-ish, as the greens browned in the heat and the players fought the gruel of the famed course Jack Nicklaus birthed, the answer went from, “No way,” to “Oh, wait, maybe,” to “Probably not,” to “Maybe-just-maybe,” boomeranging until it landed on yes. The top 65 players plus ties make PGA Tour cuts, and Woods’s score of three-over par left him in an 11-way tie for 64th place.
“Well, not very good,” he had said way back at lunchtime of his 76 that howled with a 12-hole midsection rich in trips to the rough and horror: five bogeys, one double bogey, six pars and one macabre chip shot on No. 1 on which the golf ball quailed from a rude lie across the front of the green to where a bunker ate it.
With three holes left, playing alongside fellow giants Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, Woods looked outbound from town at five-over, a suboptimal way to end a five-month hiatus from serious competition. A tournament that lost a ton of noise when the coronavirus pandemic pushed the worry above the hope and precluded spectators for the sixth straight PGA Tour event would lose a further layer of noise in losing Woods.
Yet that overlooked the thing so often overlooked beneath all the dizzying talent and gumption and 15 major titles with Woods: He’s an otherworldly grinder. “Always have” thought of himself as such, he said, a truth long since shown when he spent the years between 1998 and 2005 constructing that dizzying record streak of 142 tournaments with zero missed cuts. So he submerged his ails and forged a concerto from the sand on No. 7 to set up a two-footer for birdie, plopped in a 20-footer for a birdie on No. 8 and dunked a Seven-foot par save on No. 9 that closed things at three-over par and the cusp of the cut.
Then the 44-year-old, still-reigning Masters champion spoke of his back rebelling during morning warm-ups — “I wasn’t quite moving as well as I’d like and couldn’t quite turn back and couldn’t quite clear” — and concluded: “Ageing is not fun. Early on in my career I thought it was fantastic because I was getting better and better and better, and now I’m just trying to hold on.”
It seemed glum, but at least the little cut game was on, well behind the two-round lead of Ryan Palmer and Tony Finau at nine-under par, with Jon Rahm nibbling one behind. On all afternoon would be one of life’s most esoteric pursuits, the careful viewing of the Friday cut game. It entails gazing at computer-screen leader boards and seeing blocks of players budging around. On Friday, in the case of the freshly famous Bryson DeChambeau, the view got graphic.
Woods and the blob of players tied with him (including Koepka) kept being tied for 67th, 68th, 66th, occasionally bobbing into the desired 65th. By 4.30pm, they sat tied for 67th, one shot behind 22 others who included Bud Cauley and Max Homa and William McGirt as well as Stewart Cink and Patrick Reed and — whoa! — Vijay Singh.
It became possible to notice rare things such as the fact that Matthias Schwab stood at 2 over before double-bogeying No. 9 and double-bogeying No. 10 or that Singh, 57, surely would falter except that he didn’t. (He made the cut at 1 over!) Or that Mark Hubbard had materialised into the knot at two-over par, just above Woods et al, suggesting he might have eagled something, but wait, no, he had arrived from above, finishing with four bogeys in his final five holes, enough to make a Woods fan or a TV executive wish he had gone ahead and bogeyed that other hole, too, except that anyone wishing five closing bogeys on anyone else is, by definition, satanic.
Still, by 4.50pm as the masses moved, Woods et al bubbled back up to 65th and in.
Then as the day waned, a television monitor showed a golf ball bounding down pavement, a sight always jarring for anyone bearing any human compassion. It had come off a club of DeChambeau, that muscly tour sensation who won two weeks ago but was not winning at the par-5 No. 15, which he had begun at one-over par, epochs ago. A check of the stats led to astonishment; he already had driven into a hazard and hit two shots out of bounds for three penalty shots on one hole, all of which would affect the Friday cutline brainteaser.
Soon, DeChambeau stood with a rules dude and stared down at a ball near a fence. Then he called for another rules dude, who rode in on a cart. Then DeChambeau took that third penalty stroke, reached the green, finished up his quintuple-bogey 10, free-fell to six-over par, missed the cut and helped grant Woods a spot.
It was a victory small enough not even to be a victory, but it reiterated that thing about Woods, how his inner furnace burns even when the joints groan. Twenty-four years after turning pro, he still has missed only 20 cuts. He made another one on a day when he got up feeling fine, looked swell after making a birdie on his third hole, the par-3 No. 12, careened when his back woes kicked in a bit and said of that physical fate, “It’s going to happen more times than not.”
He bogeyed No. 13 when he three-putted from 38 feet; No. 15 when he made three separate visits to various rough; No. 17 when he toured a fairway bunker and the rough in front of the green; No. 2 when he arrived in primary rough and then intermediate rough; and No. 6 when he drove into the rough on the right, rallied to within six feet but missed that.
Amid all that, he double-bogeyed No. 1 after starting off 267 yards into the fairway before his aforementioned third shot actually looked depressed as it wailed from rough across green to bunker. He pitched up from there and two-putted.
“He looked pretty good starting off,” playing partner McIlroy said, “and then yeah, you could sort of tell when we made the turn, he hit a couple of fairway wood shots off the tee that he sort of quit on (for the back). But yeah, I mean, it looked a little bit that way, that he wasn’t quite moving as well. But he battled really well ... I mean, you can sort of tell. You can tell, he might make a bit of a grimace after a shot or something. But now, he wouldn’t just flat-out say or make excuses.”
What he still might make, two unforeseen birdies later, would be a cut, plus a helpful distraction for all, even if all aren’t so many these days.