DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) – The PGA Tour has been back for five weeks and already has delivered a tournament scoring record one week, a former No. 1 winning another week, two sudden-death playoffs and a player who grew by two shirt sizes to try to change the game.
And it still felt as though something was missing.
That changed a few minutes past 7 a.m. Tuesday when Tiger Woods pulled his courtesy car into the parking lot at Muirfield Village, changed his shoes and began preparations for his first PGA Tour event in five months.
He was wearing a mask.
The return of Woods is not the return to normal, except for those watching on television.
Woods had an idea of what to expect from seeing empty golf courses at Colonial and Harbour Town and even last week at Muirfield Village. He has heard from friends on tour how eerie it is with no fans, no cheering.
“It’s a very different world out here not to have the distractions, the noise, the excitement, the energy that the fans bring,” Woods said. “It’s just a silent and different world.”
And it’s going to stay that way.
The PGA Tour returned June 11, and the Memorial was supposed to be the first tournament with fans, at 20% capacity, until coronavirus cases began to spike and the prudent action was to play it safe. The “Nicklaus Club” hospitality tent is still to the right of the 16th tee. A small grandstand overlooks the 18th green. There wasn’t time to dismantle them.
Four more tournaments announced Monday they won’t have spectators, all the way through the Tour Championship to end the FedEx Cup season.
They’re still playing, though. And now, so is Woods.
“I think he was starting to get a little sassy,” Justin Thomas said over the weekend. “I was telling him he’s scared to come out and play against all of us when he’s sitting at home, just trying to give him a hard time. But yeah, we’re excited to have him out.”
Woods and Thomas played the back nine Tuesday morning with just over a dozen people watching, mainly media. That’s not entirely new for Woods. The final round of his victory in Japan had no spectators because of flooding. The third round of the AT&T National in 2012 had no fans because of a freak wind storm that toppled 75-foot trees at Congressional.
They were back the next day. They won’t be at Muirfield Village all week.
They will be missing as Woods, a five-time winner of the tournament Jack Nicklaus built, goes after his 83rd career victory to break the PGA Tour record he shares with Sam Snead.
Woods was last seen at a PGA Tour event on Feb. 16 at Riviera, where he shot 77 and finished in last place. His back felt stiff in the cold weather. He skipped the next four weeks to be in shape for the Masters, and then the pandemic happened.
Woods has barely been seen at all this year.
That much was clear when Woods was asked about his chances of winning after a five-month layoff. His intentions are to win, just like always. Can he do it this week? He went just over two months without playing last fall and won in his first tournament back at the Zozo Championship.
“Whether that plays out come Sunday, hopefully that will be the case,” he said. “It was that one particular week – well, three tournaments ago at Zozo. There’s no reason I can’t do it again this week.”
Three tournaments ago for Woods was nearly nine months ago.
Any tournament would love to have Woods in the field, but in this environment, does it even matter? It’s not like ticket sales would explode because there are no tickets to sell.
So it becomes a TV show, and that’s not bad, either.
The real adjustment for Woods is how he handles the silence. He has fed off the gallery longer than he’s been a pro. He was asked if he would have to go back to his Stanford days for the last time it was just him and other players on the course.
“Well, even in college I had a few people following,” he said with a laugh.
The chip-in from behind the 16th hole when he won the Memorial in 2012? The chip he made for par off the 14th green when he won in 1999? Any birdie he’s ever made at Muirfield Village? They all were followed by the loudest cheers.
“For most of my career, pretty much almost every competitive playing round that I’ve been involved in, I’ve had people around me, spectators yelling, a lot of movement inside the gallery with camera crews and media,” Woods said.
That was his world.
Not long after Nick Faldo helped Woods into the green jacket at the 1997 Masters, part of him wondered if that was the only major Woods could win. Faldo’s point was that while the course suited him, Augusta National was the only major that kept the horde of media at a distance. As it turned out, Faldo later realized, that became an asset.
“Everyone joining him now on the weekend at a major goes into his world. That’s Tiger’s arena,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. “Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out. He’s there all the time. And good luck coming into his world.”
It’s a different world now, a phrase Woods used five times Tuesday.
It’s everyone’s world.
But just seeing him at Muirfield Village gave the golf world a slight sense of normalcy.