DUBLIN, Ohio – Entering the final round of the Memorial Tournament, Tiger Woods knew the path to a comeback victory would be arduous. He knew he’d need a fast start, plus a little help from the leaders behind him, to once again stand over meaningful putts on the tournament’s final holes.
Equipped with all of that knowledge and the most control over his swing he’s had in years, Woods executed his game plan to perfection. For exactly one hole.
A clinical dissection of the opener at Muirfield Village Golf Club was as good as it got for Woods. First the mid-range birdie putts started sliding left and right, then the short miss that has plagued him all week caught up again at the turn. By the time he three-putted the 16th hole, the only thing he was withering away was world ranking points.
The game continues to show progress, and the roars are still vintage. But when it comes to final-round charges, Woods keeps coming up empty.
Granted, this was of a different magnitude from his close calls in both Tampa and Orlando. Woods started the day five shots off the lead, and never got closer than four with a handful of names above his on the leaderboard. There was no single shot that cost him, a binary result where his fate changed with a single swipe.
This was instead a slow bleed from close range, one 5-foot miss at a time.
Woods tallied seven such errors this week, mixed among five three-putts. He ultimately missed out on a playoff by six shots. After leading the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green and proximity to the hole, he finished 72nd out of 73 in putting.
While every player can recount with vivid detail the ones they let get away, especially on greens as slick and undulating as the surfaces at Jack’s place, Woods has known all week that he had only one club to blame.
“If I just putt normally, I probably would be right there with those guys and up there in the last couple of groups,” Woods said. “If I just keep building on this, with how I’m hitting it right now, I’m in good shape for two weeks from now.”
That would be in reference to the U.S. Open, where he’ll make his 26th attempt at major No. 15. And while his mood was decidedly more optimistic than the sullen tones that followed a frustrating third round, Woods still has one sizeable hurdle to clear before returning his weekend stride to its former glory.
Woods has now played eight final rounds in official events as part of this latest comeback installment, and he has yet to shoot better than a 69 in any of them. While that’s typically when conditions are the toughest and setups the most penal, it’s telling that in a season where he has exceeded nearly every other expectation he still has struggled to put a charge into a Sunday crowd, regardless of his position on the leaderboard.
Entering the week, Woods was sixth on Tour this season in third round scoring and 59th in terms of the final round. Those spreads won’t get any closer after he accurately estimated that a 63 was in reach during Saturday’s 68 before turning in a final-round 72 that at times felt more like a 75.
“I’ve had little building blocks along the way, and I keep getting a little bit better, a little bit more refined, and you see the results,” Woods said. “If I just make a few more putts like I did earlier in the year, when I was putting really well, you put those two together and then I’ll have something.”
The ability to align the various pieces mentally serves only to frustrate when they, in turn, don’t come together in practice. Woods couldn’t buy a putt when it looked like he might make the Valspar Championship his watershed victory, and it was the driver that cost him at Bay Hill. Errant irons were the culprit at the Masters, while a pair of poor wedges doomed his comeback bid at TPC Sawgrass.
This time around, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at his Scotty Cameron, a trusted ally for so many years but undoubtedly the villain that stood between him and truly contending over the weekend.
It seems straightforward, with Woods speaking of a “minor tweak” that can be made with some off-week reps. But what if later this month the driver he twice hit out of bounds in Ohio finds only the punishing rough off the tee at Shinnecock Hills? What if, by the time the putter cooperates, the short-range makes are for bogeys instead of birdies?
Golf is, at its core, a vexing game. It’s a realization for every player who has ever picked up a club, but it’s also one that Woods admirably avoided for years. But as this latest comeback shows, he is still mortal. His game is subject to the same capricious whims that plague the rest of the field.
And so he waits, and we wait, for the moment when it all comes together. It feels close on the horizon – much closer than ever expected a few short months ago. But after another underwhelming final round, he’s clearly not there yet.