NORTON — There used to be a time when Tiger Woods seemed to possess “Happy Gilmore’’ length off the tee. There wasn’t a golf course capable of containing him. There wasn’t a par 5 outside the reach of his prodigious drives.
So it seemed strange to hear Woods describe the challenges posed by the changes to the 18th hole at TPC Boston.
“You know, it’s the tee shot that I’m not real fond of because it’s a big finishing hole,’’ Woods said of the 530-yard par 5.
Up-and-down birdies or par saves will become more challenging after the 18th green was reduced in size and raised slightly for this weekend’s 10th Deutsche Bank Championship.
Further complicating the revamped finishing hole are a pair of bunkers in the middle of the fairway, which will give some players pause about going for the green in two.
‘The bigger hitters can hit the ball 320 in the air. I don’t really have that. I can carry it 300, but that’s a different gear.’
“And some of the longer hitters can’t hit driver there,’’ said Woods, who did not seem to count himself among that group.
“Some of the really long ones can,’’ he said. “They just go over the top of the bunker and go to the right side of the fairway and have a little wedge in. But I can’t carry the ball 325, 330 in the air, so I’ll be playing 3-wood and hitting some kind of long iron or 5-wood into the green.’’
At 36, having endured ACL surgery on his left knee in 2008, was Woods acknowledging that age had finally caught up to his length?
When did he cease to consider himself one of the game’s longest hitters?
“Probably mid-2000s, I wasn’t the longest one out here,’’ said Woods, who is averaging 297.0 yards a drive (PGA Tour leader Bubba Watson goes for 315.5).
“I mean, the game has certainly changed,’’ Woods said. “When I came out here in ’96 and ’97, I was long and I averaged 296. I think there’s like 30-some-odd guys who are averaging over 300. So, it’s a totally different game now.
“You know, the bigger hitters can hit the ball 320 in the air. I don’t really have that. I can carry it 300, but that’s a different gear. They’re taller, they’re bigger, and most of the longer guys are 6-3.
“When I was coming out here, if you were 6-foot, you were pretty much big.’’
His size and power led to dominating length that intimidated the competition.
“Look at [Jack] Nicklaus, [Arnold] Palmer, [Gary] Player, [Tom] Watson, they’re all short compared to the big guys now, and they were long hitters at the time for their era,’’ Woods said. “But these guys [today] are just bigger. I certainly can’t carry the ball that far, but I’m still one of the longer ones, but not the longest by any stretch of the imagination.’’
Driving distance is not how Woods will measure his 2012 season, which has been highlighted by victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial, and the AT&T National. The latter triumph gave Woods 74 PGA Tour victories, enabling him to surpass Nicklaus for second most all time behind Sam Snead (82).
But Woods has struggled in the majors since winning the US Open in 2008. He did not break par in a weekend round at a major in 2012.
He was tied for the lead after the first 36 holes at the US Open and the PGA Championship, and was in the hunt at the British Open until a 3-over 73 in the final round took him out of contention.
He entered the FedEx Cup playoffs as the points leader but dropped to third behind leader Nick Watney, who won The Barclays last weekend. Woods finished T-38th and was plagued by a nagging back issue.
“The back is good,’’ Woods said Thursday after his pro-am round. “It was nice to have the treatment there on the weekend and then have Monday off.’’
In six of his last 18 rounds, however, Woods has failed to shoot below par, including a 72-76 finish last weekend.
“You can’t really look at it as real bad going this year,’’ said Woods. “At the time, most of the year, I was leading the money list, I was No. 1 in FedEx Cup points, and I won three times, so it’s not like it’s been that bad. It’s just a couple of rounds here and there or it’s an up-and-down here and there or it’s making one putt, which is not good.’’
Asked if his lagging distance off the tee has forced him to reinvent other parts of his game, Woods said, “I really haven’t had to reinvent how I’ve played because I’ve always been one of the longer hitters on tour, just had to be efficient at what I do.
“I hit the ball far enough to where I can get to the par 5s, and if you take care of the par 5s and you take care of a few more along the way, you’re going to have a pretty good tournament.’’