By DOUG FERGUSON
That was Tiger Woods in his red shirt on Sunday at the Masters. That was Tiger Woods slipping on the green jacket.
But it’s not the same Tiger Woods.
The evidence has less to do with how he plays — still plenty good to beat the best in the world on the biggest stage — and more to do with how often he plays.
The chanting and cheering Sunday afternoon at Augusta National sounded as though it would go on forever. Woods, 11 years and four back surgeries removed from his last major, methodically worked his way around the back nine and beat a cast of contenders that included the last two major champions (Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari) and the No. 1 player in the world (Dustin Johnson).
It was his 15th major, and it started anew the countdown in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 majors.
That now seems a lot longer than three months ago.
Woods has played just three tournaments — 10 rounds — since he won the Masters. For only the seventh time in his career, he went from one major to the next without having played in between, and then he missed the cut at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship.
Unusual? Not anymore.
He goes into the British Open, which starts next week on a Royal Portrush links he has never seen, having not played since he shot 69 in the final round at Pebble Beach on June 16. A good back nine allowed him to tie for 21st. He finished 11 shots behind Gary Woodland.
There were not many options. Woods has not played the week after the U.S. Open since 2003. Instead of having the Quicken Loans National, which his foundation ran, the tour offered two new events in Detroit and Minnesota. The only time Woods has played a week before the British Open was in 1995, when he was still in college. He played the Scottish Open at Carnoustie ahead of the British Open at St. Andrews.
His only public activity since Pebble Beach was a social media post for Nike on Monday in which he says he is getting up at 1 a.m. because that would be 6 a.m. at Royal Portrush, and he wanted “to be prepared for the time change.”
“If you want to succeed, if you want to get better, if you want to win, if you want to accomplish your goals, well, it starts with getting up early in the morning,” he said.
The inactivity is another reminder that Woods is managing his health as much as his game.
Most telling was what he said at Bethpage Black: “There are more days I feel older than my age than I do younger than my age,” he said.
What to expect at the final major of the year?
No one was more perplexed about his lack of competition going into the British Open than Padraig Harrington.
“If you’re serious about winning The Open, you’ve got to be playing tournament golf at least before it,” Harrington said. “You’d rather be playing links golf and being in a tournament than just on your own going into it.”
That was never the case with Woods.
In his younger days, Woods came over to Ireland with Mark O’Meara for a mix of links golf and fishing, either at Portmarnock or Royal County Down, and sometimes to the south in Waterville. In a 10-year stretch since he first went to Ireland, Woods won the Open three times and contended in three others.
“I think it has been instrumental in preparing for the British Open, not only for getting adjusted for the time, but also getting used to playing links golf,” he said in 2002 in Ireland, where he won a World Golf Championship. “We play in all different types of weather, which certainly makes it interesting. And I think it’s instrumental in my preparation for The Open Championship.”
Harrington wasn’t being as critical of Woods as the headlines suggested. There is simply a different way to prepare, and no one can argue with Woods’ results.
“I was always mightily impressed when Tiger Woods would play in a major without playing the week before,” Harrington said. “I’d be a basket case if I didn’t play the week before. Different personalities. Completely different.”
Woods finished last year with a victory in the Tour Championship, and he had been building toward that. He inched closer to contention two weeks before the British Open, and then had the lead briefly on Sunday at Carnoustie and tied for sixth. He pushed Koepka all the way to the end in a runner-up finish at the PGA Championship.
And then he won at East Lake.
He was clearly fatigued at the Ryder Cup, where he didn’t win a match, and after two months away from the game, he finished 17th against an 18-man field in the Bahamas. He played three tournaments in a five-week stretch to start this year and finished nearly 11 shots out of the lead on average. And then he skipped Bay Hill, citing soreness in his neck. His explanation was simple. Sometimes he doesn’t feel that great, a product of age and injuries.
Woods lost in the quarterfinals of Match Play, and two weeks later won the Masters.
In the three events since then, he missed the cut and finished 10 shots and 11 shots out of the lead.
“If I feel good, then I feel like I can play any venue,” Woods said at the U.S. Open. “When I’m stiff and not moving as well, it becomes a little bit more difficult.”
This sounds like the new normal. He would not elaborate — that’s the old normal — on how he felt at Bethpage, where he played only nine holes of practice in the three days leading up to the first round. “I was in rough shape,” he said.
Before leaving Pebble Beach, Woods said he would wind down and get his lifts up in the gym. His hope was that he would see more than one wind direction during practice at Royal Portrush, “especially on a course I’ve never played.”
“I know Florida will not be the same temperature as Northern Ireland,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to be practicing with any sweaters at home, but it will be nice to get to Portrush and get with it again.”
Which Tiger Woods will show up? Odds are, not even he knows.