Tiger Woods’s Latest Adjustment Becomes a Burden

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SAN FRANCISCO — At this stage of Tiger Woods’s career, unpredictability is as sure a bet as a red shirt on Sunday.

Concerns about loosening his surgically repaired back linger over his every appearance. The much-discussed summer fog and cool air at T.P.C. Harding Park constantly threaten Woods’s ability to function without pain or fatigue. In the past few years, he’s changed golf club manufacturers, his brand of golf ball and, this week, even his putter. He wore a neck gaiter Thursday, a sign of the pandemic times.

A laborious Friday round of two-over 72 put Woods at even par for the P.G.A. Championship — tied for 44th, eight shots behind leader Haotong Li — just clear of the one-over-par cut line.

His performance through two rounds have shown how, even with the most considered approach, no one knows what will come from what used to be the most reliable wager in sports: Tiger Woods at a major.

For starters, his Thursday morning round was excellent, a competitive 68 that looked fresh and included some of his best putting of the year — his combined total of 114 feet, 9 inches of made putts signaled a season-high. Another sign of the times: Woods’s switch to a slightly longer putter was made, he said, in part so he didn’t have to bend over as much while practicing.

If Tiger Woods was back to making putts — could another major win be possible?

From his first swing of the day Friday, a piped 301-yard drive from the first tee, his back looked healthy, perhaps a benefit of the afternoon tee time that allowed him to rest and warm up. His next swing was sound, though his missed 7-footer for birdie was a disappointment.

Another missed putt, a 12-footer for par on No. 3, which stayed left despite Woods’s body language urging it right, led to bogey and questions about the blade. They deepened over a missed 9-footer for birdie on the 4th hole after a perfect drive on the par 5. Another missed birdie try on No. 5, from 10 feet, left him walking off the green, a stern expression etched.

The switch to the new putter, celebrated on Thursday, looked like a curse on Friday.

Woods tried to appease the golf gods with solid ball-striking, hitting six of the first nine greens in regulation. Another missed try, a 14-footer for par on the difficult ninth hole showed the gods’ callousness. Woods made the turn at a two-over 37, even par for the tournament. He was on his own as the cut line loomed.

“I drove it great today. That’s one of the things I wanted to clean up from yesterday,” Woods said. “And I really struggled with getting the speed of the greens today. They looked faster than what they were putting.”

Woods finally sank a nine-footer for his first birdie of the day on No. 10 and saved par on the 12th. Even though no fans are allowed at Harding Park, a die-hard group of two dozen or so fans lined Lake Merced Boulevard by the 12th tee box, peering through a fence.

“Even the 12th hole, the tee box there alongside the road, Tiger gets on the tee and everyone goes crazy and you have to wait for them to settle down,” Rory McIlroy, who was paired with Woods and Justin Thomas, said.

But the momentum didn’t last, as he failed to get up and down out of a bunker at No. 13, missing another makeable par save from seven feet.

At this point, Woods’s countenance hid none of his disgust. Woods blew the approach over the 15th green for another bogey, his body language teetered along with his weekend status.

His survival instincts kicked in, though, and a decision to lay up off the tee at the short par-4 16th led to a 12-foot make for birdie, his longest made putt of the day. He’d make the cut, after all.

Keen to maximize his budgeted golf swings for a calendar year, Woods told reporters earlier in the week that he had been preparing his body for the major tournament stretch of the schedule, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since hosting and playing at the Genesis Invitational in February, where he finished 68th, Woods did not play again until the Memorial Tournament in July, where another Friday rally helped him make the cut on the number before finishing 46th. The FedEx Cup playoffs fill out August, leading to the United States Open at Winged Foot in September and the rescheduled Masters just before Thanksgiving.

Since an emotional 2019 Masters win, Woods missed cuts at two of his next three majors, the 2019 P.G.A. Championship and the 2019 Open Championship, suggesting perhaps that the win taxed him both physically and mentally.

“I celebrated winning the Masters for quite some time,” he said this week, with a smile.

He arrived ahead of the field on Sunday for a practice round, comfortable in a region a half-hour drive north of Stanford University, Woods’s alma mater. After growing up playing munis in Southern California, Woods looked almost at home when TV cameras caught him changing his shoes in the parking lot before his Friday round.

Like a muni duffer, Woods experienced the travails of golf over the next five hours. He’d been asked earlier in the week if, given his back and his layoff, can he win? “Of course,” Woods said.

That view looked gloomier after an exhausting Friday for Woods and his fellow competitors in the group. McIlroy shot a one-under-par 69, tied for 31st, and Thomas went into the clubhouse with a 70 for the day, one-over-par for the tournament and just inside the cut. It was clear that Harding Park had worked them to the bone.

“Once Tiger and I got our tee shots off 18,” McIlroy said, “I just gave him a look like, ‘phew, glad that’s almost done.’”

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