LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In a year that’s mostly been devoid of drama at the major championships, leave it to Tiger Woods to flip a monotonous practice-round Wednesday at the PGA Championship into one chaotic “BREAKING NEWS!” circus.
When last we saw Woods, he was being carted off the golf course on Sunday, barely able to change his shoes and shuffling gingerly to his car, ravaged by back spasms that forced him to withdraw mid-round from the Bridgestone Invitational. Surely he’d be in no physical shape to play competitive golf four days later, right?
But Woods left open that possibility when he requested an extension from Tuesday’s tournament registration deadline. The longer he went without withdrawing, his supporters reasoned, the greater the chance he’d show up and tee it up.
Given an early-morning tee time for Thursday’s first round, Wednesday figured to be the day of reckoning, the culmination of the “will-he-or-won’t-he” sideshow that had settled over Valhalla Golf Club like a slow-moving summer storm on the eve of the 96th PGA Championship.
Wednesday morning brought rumors, whispers, and teasing tweets. But then came the juicy confirmation, an e-mail from the PGA of America just after noon announcing that yes, Woods had indeed arrived, causing a mad dash to the player parking lot, the cameras waiting to catch the 14-time major winner in the act of guiding his courtesy car into its designated spot.
At 1:16 p.m., Woods pulled in and casually got out of the driver’s seat, aware but seemingly unimpressed with the dozens of media recording the historic moment, Golf Channel pumping the live footage into America’s homes almost commercial-free. Most importantly, Woods showed no sign of the recent injury: He kicked off his sneakers, pulled on his golf shoes, and hopped up the steps toward the Valhalla clubhouse.
Five minutes later he was on the range, where he went about the task of loosening up for a practice round that would be followed with the same intensity of a final pairing on Sunday. Photographers scurrying, cameras whirring, crowds building and buzzing.
There were some good shots from Woods, and some poor shots, which aptly mirrors his abbreviated, abysmal season. But hey, at least there were shots. After he finished his prep work at 6:30 p.m., Woods even spent a few minutes signing autographs behind the 18th green, slipping under the ropes and scribbling for a number of fans who were shoving flags in his face.
So, Tiger Woods is back. He’s fully expecting to play on Thursday — he’s off at 8:35 a.m., with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington — boldly saying he’ll even try to win the event. By all accounts, his back is just fine.
“Pain-free, yes,” Woods said, minutes after he played the front nine with Steve Stricker, Davis Love, and Harris English, and just before he took the putter and a few wedges out to walk the back nine and scout the greens. “I feel good. Once the bone is put back in, it’s all good.”
That last sentence might not sound good, but Woods did his best to convince everybody that he’s healthy enough to give this a try. The reason, he said, is because Sunday’s injury was not related to the back issue that prompted microdiscectomy surgery on March 31 and caused him to miss three months. Sunday’s pain, according to Woods, felt different, and wasn’t in the same location as what caused the earlier surgery.
Once Woods received some treatment on the aching back after Sunday, he said his range of motion returned and he was able to make some swings back home that provided the green light to gas up the jet and point it toward Kentucky.
The golf course that was waiting for Woods on Wednesday bears a resemblance to what he saw in 2000, the last time the PGA Championship was held at Valhalla.
But only a slight one. The course was tweaked before the 2008 Ryder Cup — injured, Woods did not play — and has been tinkered with some more since then.
Woods won that 2000 PGA, surviving a final-round duel with Bob May in a three-hole playoff, ending some of the most riveting and dramatic hours of golf that have been played over the last 15 years.
Golf could use some major drama. Bubba Watson wasn’t pressed on the back nine while winning the Masters, and Martin Kaymer lapped the field at the US Open.
Rory McIlroy won the Open Championship by two shots, but his lead was seven one hole into the final round. They’ve all lacked a compelling reason to tune in during the final round, and judging by the sinking TV ratings, the audience hasn’t.
The PGA, though, has delivered the goods over the years, with playoffs and big shots almost the norm.
Both PGA Championships here needed extra holes (Mark Brooks over Kenny Perry in 1996), and the 2008 Ryder Cup remains the last time the Americans have won since the 1999 matches at The Country Club.
As always during a Ryder Cup year, there are two competitions simultaneously converging during PGA week, with players jockeying for an automatic spot on the national team while attempting to win a major championship.
Due to Woods’s limited 2014 schedule (six tour starts), he’s so far back on the points list that he’ll need a brush with victory to even have an opportunity to prolong his season, either in the PGA Tour’s playoff events or at the Ryder Cup.
But Valhalla seems to like an underdog. As weird as it might sound, that’s exactly how Woods comes across this week, with a broken body carrying a tattered golf game. A finish of 24th or better would be his best of the year.
Woods owned Wednesday. Starting Thursday, that means not a thing.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.