This was not quite the “ageing isn’t fun” admission delivered by Tiger Woods in mid-July. At that juncture, the most famous golfer of a generation admitted he was “just trying to hold on” to the remnants of an extraordinary career. Nonetheless, a player who regarded public displays of fallibility as such a horrible concept for so long is developing a fresh, almost consistent theme.
Woods won’t win the 102nd US PGA Championship. There will be no 16th major title, which would bring him within two of the magic number set by Jack Nicklaus, at Harding Park. A third round of 72 left Woods two over par on aggregate and chasing a top-20 finish at absolute best.
When asked thereafter whether he has a finite number of major opportunities left in his career, the 44-year-old Woods was candid. The changing face of golf was the reference point. “There is,” he said. “There’s not as many as when I first started playing. The reality is that the golf courses are getting bigger. They are getting longer. The margin between making the cut and the lead is a lot smaller than it used to be. Used to be sometimes 12 to 15 shots.
“Now, we had, what, nine shots here? It’s just different. It’s getting tighter and it’s getting harder to win events, but you look at the leaderboard of most major championships, you see the same guys. May not be always the same winners, but you see the same handful of guys are there.
They understand how to win major championships, how to win the big events, how to plod their way along, how difficult it is to win these big events.” Against his own analysis – and recurring injury is a factor here – Woods’s Masters glory of last year is an outlier. It seems obvious to pinpoint Augusta National and a title defence in November as the main target that remains for Woods in 2020. Not that, typically, he will gaze so far into the distance. “Last day and we still have another major championship to play,” Woods said of round four at Harding Park. “Get ready for the [FexEx Cup] play-offs and we have the US Open after that. We have some big events to be played and hopefully tomorrow I can shoot something in the red and get it to under par for the tournament.” Woods may deliver, but the goal is bordering on irrelevant.
To his credit, Woods once again refused to use the lack of galleries – and energy gained – as a mitigating factor. “I just think that big events, you see the same guys,” he added. “We see Brooks [Koepka] up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether there’s crowds or no crowds.”
Justin Thomas’s 68 moved him to one under after 54 holes. More interesting than those raw numbers was the contrast between Thomas, now the world No1, and his Saturday playing partner. Jordan Spieth is a long-time friend of Thomas and for so long was the world’s pre-eminent golfer. As Spieth has endured stark loss of form, Thomas has seen his career accelerate. Spieth was again painfully off the boil en route to a 76. He will start the final round at seven over par and tied for last among those who made the cut.
“I know he’s going to be fine,” said Thomas. “I’m not just saying it because he’s one of my best friends. I mean, I’ve seen him get it around when he’s not playing well. All of us go through little spurts. It’s just for him, this has just been a tough one. All it takes sometimes is one week and all your confidence gets back. That’s golf.
“He didn’t quit at all today. He didn’t play well. And you know, walking off 18, he’s like, ‘I’m sorry, man. I just didn’t really give you any momentum,’ and that’s a good friend trying to take the blame.” At five under par inside seven holes, Thomas had played his way into US PGA contention. He played the next 11 holes in two over. “I’m pissed off, that’s really the best way to describe it,” said Thomas. “I let a really good round go and really had a great opportunity to put myself in a good position going into tomorrow. I just didn’t capitalise on the back nine.” Rory McIlroy’s 71 means he, like Thomas, is now playing for minor honours.
The Northern Irishman is level for the championship.
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