From Liberty National Golf Club’s 10th tee box, Tiger Woods hit toward a distant Manhattan skyline shrouded in clouds. The imagery was crystalline even if the horizon was not.
When Woods, 43, teed off Thursday morning at the Northern Trust, the first FedEx Cup playoff event, he did not know what the next few hours would reveal about either his game or his body. His 4-over-par 75 — his fifth over-par score in 13 rounds since his Masters victory in April — provided more questions than clarity.
“It just feels frustrating to shoot anything high no matter how I feel,” said Woods, who added that his back was “a little bit stiff, yeah, but that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
After four back operations, Woods has to look at each of his scorecards as a scratch-off lottery ticket; he can still hit the jackpot, but because he’s not sure what each new day will reveal, the element of luck looms larger.
On occasion, Woods wakes up and feels the way he did that humid Sunday three months ago at Augusta National; strong and light, capable of beating everybody, as he did with a closing 70 to secure his 15th major title.
More often, Woods struggles to get out of bed and feels the way he did during Wednesday’s pro-am round; stiff and sluggish, exactly like a golfer feted by his fans but incapable of competing with his younger self or the generation of players whose careers were molded in his image.
Thursday fell somewhere in the middle. Woods generated enough club-head speed to outdrive the 26-year-old J.T. Poston, one of the players with whom he was grouped, by 53 yards on the par-4 17th. That was after he tried — and nearly succeeded — to drive the green on the 303-yard, par-4 16th.
But Woods couldn’t will the nervy putts to drop, missing four within 7 feet, including a 3-footer for par at the par-4 third hole.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” Woods said. “No matter how much you try to will it around, it doesn’t add up to the number you want. It’s happened before. It happened today, and I’m sure it will happen in the future — hopefully not tomorrow.”
Woods’ slow start turned the 36-hole cut into a mountain that may be too tall for him to scale. He entered the week at 28th in the FedEx Cup rankings. The field will be winnowed to the top 30 after next week’s second event, outside Chicago, and Woods could find himself scrambling to stick around so he can try to defend his Tour Championship title at the playoff finale in Atlanta in two weeks.
By Thursday’s end, Woods was 13 strokes behind the Northern Trust leader, Troy Merritt.
His round had its moments. He cast the par-5 13th in a better light with a birdie. On the same hole in the final round of this event in 2013, Woods struck his fairway wood and was driven to his knees by back spasms. He finished in a tie for second, behind Adam Scott, blaming a too-soft mattress for the spasms. It marked the beginning of a few dark years spent trying to regain his physical health.
It is a continuing battle for Woods, who has scaled back his practice and tournament schedule to try to wring the most out of his career and his surgically fused back. Poston posted a 67 as he rode the momentum from his first career victory, which he sealed last Sunday with a closing 62 at the Wyndham Championship.
Woods hasn’t been able to play enough to settle into a groove. Since his victory at the Masters, Woods has played 26 fewer competitive rounds than Poston. It’s as if Woods is caught between the player he was — the one who outworked everybody — and the ceremonial golfer that he is not ready to become.
To find the middle ground, Woods has to work smarter than everybody, instead of longer. During his morning pro-am Wednesday, back stiffness caused Woods to confine his work to mostly chips and putts on the back nine. His rusty iron and wedge play suggest he hasn’t been able to spend as much time refining those parts of his game. Woods conceded as much, describing the effort as a challenge. He added, “It’s trying to figure out how to stay sharp, practice and also have my back feeling good all the time.”
While Woods was signing his scorecard Thursday, his caddie, Joe LaCava, was handed a slip of paper that contained a quote from Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in 2013, when he was 37 years old and still a few years from retirement.
“It’s like a lottery because you don’t know how much longer your body can keep doing it,” Ortiz told The Boston Globe.
Ortiz added: “I’m not going to lie to you — there are some days that I have a hard time catching up with fastballs or catching up with pitches that I used to play with. But I can still hurt you.”
LaCava finished reading and looked up. “That’s pretty accurate,” he said.