At PGA Championship, can Tiger Woods turn back time?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In a sport beset by change, recent and unwelcome, a nostalgic comfort is found in one thing that remains familiar after all these years.

There’s still nothing like watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball.

“His skill level, his talent is still just mesmerizing,” said fellow PGA Tour golfer Max Homa.

The Big Cat isn’t back. Not by his standards.

But he’s here.

Woods, 48, is teeing it up at this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he won this tournament in 2000 – literally half a lifetime ago. His appearance is a rare treat for golf fans who’ve grow accustomed to seldom seeing him prowl the links anymore.

Since July 2022, Woods has played in only five PGA Tour events – and he withdrew from two.

The competitive spirit is willing, but physically? That’s his question, and it isn’t going away.

Woods said Tuesday his body feels ‘OK.’ That he is “always going to feel soreness and stiffness in my back.’ That he wishes his “game was a little sharper,” because, after all, he doesn’t play much. He also said that he appreciates all this more, also because he doesn’t play much.

And yet, Woods said this, too, like a man who meant it: “I still feel that I can win golf tournaments.”

“I still feel I can hit the shots,” he said. “I still feel like I have my hands around the greens, and I can putt. I just need to do it for all four days.”

For anyone old enough to remember Woods in his prime, it’s odd – and, frankly, a little sad – to imagine him sitting at the site of a major tournament, having to convince anyone of his capacity to play golf at the highest level.

Being a massive underdog, it doesn’t suit Woods, given the unmistakable aura and massive crowds that accompany his every step on a golf course. But at the same time, it’d be truly stunning for him to repeat his previous PGA win here at Valhalla. Too many of those steps on this golf course.

Old baseball pitchers will tell you, years after retiring, that they’d still be capable of heating up their arms for one, good, vintage performance. The trouble would come with asking their aging arms to keep doing it again and again against younger competition.

Woods figures to still be capable of one special shot or putt or round, “but when that energy and that adrenaline wears off either sometime Thursday or Friday, what does he have after that?” said Curtis Strange, former golfer-turned-ESPN-analyst.

Last month, Woods made the cut at The Masters with rounds of 73 and 72, but he followed it with disappointing rounds of 82 and 77 to finish at 16-over-par, last among those who golfed into the weekend in Augusta.

“Getting around is more of the difficulty that I face, day to day, and the recovery, pushing myself either in practice or on competitive days,” Woods said. “I mean, you saw it at Augusta. I was there after two days and didn’t do very well on the weekend.”

The head tells you he has no chance, but the heart wants to listen to Homa, who played alongside Woods for those first two rounds at The Masters.

“It’s always going to be crazy to think he’d win another one,” Homa said, “but watching him play those two days at Augusta, I very much thought he could win another golf tournament. …

‘I’d put nothing past him at this point.”

Reach sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@gannett.com and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.

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