With the U.S. Open looming, Tiger Woods is still looking for his game


For the record, Tiger Woods finished 63rd in the FedEx Cup standings, his 2019-20 season coming to an end Sunday at the BMW Championship, where he failed to qualify for this week’s Tour Championship.

That means he won’t be able to play for the $45 million in FedEx bonus money that is at stake at East Lake, including the $15 million that goes to the winner.

His consolation prize is $150,000 — $75,000 of which is deferred to a PGA Tour retirement account, a sum so paltry in his world as to barely cause a ripple. It is unlikely he is fretting over it.

He might, however, be wondering what it will take to put it all together in time for the U.S. Open in two weeks. Woods was never really able to do that in 16 tournament rounds over the past seven weeks.

He was never a final-round contender, playing dew-sweeping weekend rounds meant to try to find form that was fleeting.

“Just missing the ball in the wrong spots here and there,” Woods said after his final round was completed long before the leaders teed off Sunday at Olympia Fields. “I certainly haven’t putted as well as I would have liked, and with the scores being as low as they have been, I just haven’t been able to shoot the low scores like I needed to.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you can boil Woods’ issues down to one glaring aspect that occurred in suburban Chicago: his inability to birdie a single par-5 hole at Olympia Fields.

Playing those holes so well over the years is why that retirement account has swelled to a massive amount. He simply dominated those holes, often leading and usually finishing among the top 5 in par-5 scoring leaders, especially in his prime.

To not birdie a single par-5 hole encapsulates his troubles. Granted, the two par-5s at Olympia Fields measured more than 600 yards. Still, Woods either couldn’t get a drive in the fairway, allowing him to go for the green in 2; or couldn’t hit a long iron approach onto the green from 250-plus yards; or hit poor wedge shots when having to lay up; or hit poor shots from greenside putts; or, ultimately, couldn’t make a putt.

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He had not failed to birdie a single par-5 in a tournament since the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open, and that event was just three rounds for him as he missed the 54-hole cut.

Woods played them in 2 over for the week when he might have been expected to play them at least 4 under. A 6-shot swing is impossible to overcome, especially on a course that yielded so few birdie opportunities.

He made just nine birdies for the week, which speaks to those same issues of an overall game that would not come together. The last time Woods had fewer in a tournament was at the 2007 U.S. Open played at Oakmont, where the winning score was 5 over par and Woods tied for second.

At least Olympia Fields played like a U.S. Open and gave Woods some things to think about heading to Winged Foot in a few weeks.

“This was a great ramp-up for me for the U.S. Open,” he said. “I wish I was playing next week, but I’ve got a couple of weeks off.”

Woods does have a few things he can try to build on. Even though his statistics don’t necessarily show it, Woods drove the ball well at times during the BMW, hitting several 300-plus-yard drives and swinging smoothly.

His chipping improved, although it was not great overall. And for the most part, there were no injury concerns, although Woods said he is “always” stiff and that living with back problems is part of the deal following a spinal fusion. “There are some good days and bad days,” he said.

He can look at the bright side and say that getting to the BMW Championship is not a bad accomplishment having played just seven official events. One more solid week and he’d have been in the Tour Championship.

Then again, Woods seems a long way removed from the player who shot 64-64 to open the Zozo Championship in Japan last October and shot 19 under par to win his 82nd PGA Tour event, tying Sam Snead‘s record.

After contending at and then finishing fourth at the unofficial Hero World Challenge, Woods was the best player at the Presidents Cup, where as the U.S. playing captain he went 3-0 and plotted his way around the Royal Melbourne course brilliantly.

It led to extreme optimism heading into 2020, and a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines certainly did not disappoint.

Nothing seemed to go right after that.

A last-place finish and back stiffness at the Genesis Open might have been considered a one-off had Woods not then skipped the WGC-Mexico event, as well as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship.

The pandemic shutdown offered Woods a chance to heal his body and get his game in shape, and there were various signs of good play but never a complete effort. His putting, especially, has been poor — he ranked 63rd out of 69 at the BMW in strokes gained, losing 3.5 strokes per round to the field.

In his four most recent starts, he tied for 40th at the Memorial, tied for 37th at the PGA, tied for 58th at the Northern Trust and was tied for 51st at the BMW. He was 28th in the FedEx standings heading into the shutdown and couldn’t capitalize on an early-season victory.

“It’s been a very awkward year for all of us, with the virus and not having to play,” he said. “The majors moved around, question mark on if we were going to play the tour, when we’re going to play the tour, guys testing positive. It’s been a difficult year and difficult season for anyone involved in the sport of golf. But we’re certainly coming out on the positive side.”

There have yet to be many positives for Woods, at least in terms of his golf.

It’s not unlike how 2019 ended for Woods, who played poorly in six starts following his Masters win, with a stiff back and — we learned later — a bad knee playing a big role in his problems. Woods had arthroscopic surgery on the knee and nine weeks later won in Japan. The win was as shocking as it was invigorating.

But unlike a year ago, there is no long layoff before the next event. The U.S. Open looms. He’s likely to play at least once prior to his Masters defense in November, and then again at his charity event in December.

He called Sunday “more indicative of how I want to play in a couple of weeks,” a round that saw him shoot over par with a bogey and a double among his final four holes.

Whether that’s wishful thinking or simply the best he can take from a tough week, only Woods knows.

But a new season awaits, with a major championship to kick it off — and little time to figure things out.

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