For nearly all of Tiger Woods’ 20-minute press conference Wednesday morning at East Lake Golf Club, he sat very still. He folded his left arm across a table that separated him from reporters seated below, holding his right arm. The fingers of his right hand spread across the base of a microphone stand as he made eye contact with one media member after another.
A two-time winner of the Tour Championship, Woods is making his first appearance at the PGA Tour’s season-ending event since 2013. His goal is the same this week as it always has been, to win the tournament, and his game is good enough to do it.
But realistically, Tiger is not going to win his third FedEx Cup title this week. No. 20 on the FedEx Cup points list, Tiger tees off on Thursday with Tommy Fleetwood. To win the FedEx Cup he not only needs to win this week, but all of the players in the top 5 would also need to collapse.
Fielding one question after another, Tiger smiled occasionally and gave thoughtful answers. It was the Tiger Woods we have seen for most of 2018, not the man whose focus, mental toughness and game intimidated more than a few competitors and scribes alike. At times he appeared both reflective and grateful. At one point, he was downright somber.
Asked if he ever thinks about the last time he was involved in the Ryder Cup as a player, Woods recalled the events that took place in 2012 at Medinah in detail and how it felt to be on the course and lose.
“I had worked my way back against Francesco. I was 1 down with a few to go, and I turned the match and I was 1 up, and thought my match would be the deciding point,” Woods said, talking about his singles match against Francesco Molinari. “It was tough watching them celebrate in the 18th fairway when I thought we should have won that one. It was tough listening to (the European team’s) celebrations at the Belfry in ’02. I was on the 17th hole playing against Jesper (Parnevik), listening to them celebrate going up 18. To hear that sound and to not have the point count on Sunday is tough.”
After missing nearly all of 2016 and 2017 due to his back injury, Woods said that 2018 has exceeded his expectations from a health standpoint. His performance inside the ropes has been better than he expected, too, but Woods knows he is not the same player who shot 64-63-64-66 here in 2007 to win by eight shots.
Football players who have knee injuries say they know they are completely healthy when they forget about their knee and start doing things instinctively again on the field. Woods seems to have accepted that he is never going to reach that level of recovery.
“There are certain shots I still think about it. More than anything, I just feel it,” Woods said. “I’ll never be as flexible as I used to be. I can’t. It’s not moving. And so there are things that I’m limited by. I get reminded every day when I wake up in the morning that this is not what it used to be. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it’s been the last few years.”
But that does not mean Tiger can’t compete at East Lake and win. He enters the Tour Championship ranked first in strokes gained approach the green, a testament to his outstanding iron play this year.
“In general, this golf course is a ballstriker’s course. I mean, you’ve got to hit your golf ball well,” Woods said. “You’ve got to drive it well, place your irons correctly.”
You also need to know where the tees are located, which Tiger did not before playing his practice round on Tuesday with Bryson DeChambeau, 24, and Tony Finau, who is 29.
Call it a senior moment, but Woods, 42, revealed that he thought the group was playing the back nine. In actuality, they were playing the front nine Tuesday afternoon because the nines were reversed for the Tour Championship starting in 2016.
There are two more events in 2018 that matter to Woods: this week’s Tour Championship and next week’s Ryder Cup. In a lot of ways, Woods will play them both with house money. Making it to East Lake and earning a captain’s pick onto the Ryder Cup team was a lot closer to dreams 10 months ago than expectations.
“When I was laying on the ground and couldn’t move for a number of months, golf is the furthest thing from my mind,” Woods said. “To have gone through that and have gotten to this point, it’s been fun.”