When Tiger Woods begins his quest Thursday morning to win his 16th major title at the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, we’ll understandably witness a very different person and player than we saw when he won the U.S. Open here in 2002 and tied for sixth in the 2009 U.S. Open.
Yes, everyone changes with age. But Woods' transformation is magnified under the microscope for all to see. And the differences between the "old" Tiger and this "new" Tiger are seemingly as different as night and day. At the age of 43, after battling through injuries, chaos in his personal life, four back surgeries, a DUI and treatment for addiction to painkillers, Woods seems to have emerged as a much different version of himself. What we’re seeing is a kinder, friendlier, wiser Tiger Woods.
And that wisdom has crossed over to how he handles the physical part of the game. He’s had to adjust a lot after all the back procedures and as his body gets older.
“That's the fickle nature of having my back fused,” Woods explained in his news conference Tuesday. “Some days I have more range of motion. Some days I don't. Some days I ache more, and sometimes I don't. That's just -- there's more volatility, put it that way. There's more days I feel older than my age than I do younger than my age. That's one of the trickier things. And then you add the golf component to it.”
Tiger talks about cutting back on his practice schedule and the number of tournaments he enters. He hasn't played one tournament since winning his fifth green jacket at the Masters on April 14, needing both a physical and mental break.
“I wanted to play at Quail Hollow, but to be honest with you, I wasn't ready yet to start the grind of practicing and preparing and logging all those hours again," Woods said. "I was lifting -- my numbers were good. I was feeling good in the gym, but I wasn't mentally prepared to log in the hours.
“The interesting part going forward is how much do I play and how much do I rest. I think I've done a lot of the legwork and the hard work already, trying to find my game over the past year and a half. Now I think it's just maintaining it. I know that I feel better when I'm fresh. The body doesn't respond like it used to, doesn't bounce back quite as well, so I've got to be aware of that.”
His practice sessions have changed drastically.
“I can't spend every day working on every part of my game,” Woods said. “That's just not going to happen anymore.”
Tiger, whose previous major title before he won last month's Masters came in 2008, says he spends a lot more time working on his short game, hitting wedge shots and swinging longer clubs to make sure he “has the feel.”
“I spend a lot of time on pitching and putting, wedging ... they're all smaller motions of a full motion with the driver," he said. "And so I do hit a lot of wedge shots that are -- I end up pulling out a driver and only hitting it, call it 80, 90 yards in the air, just making sure my swing feels good. I don't load the body like I used to and be as explosive for, call it a three-, four-hour period on the range. Those days are gone.”
Woods recalled a conversation he had with Peyton Manning after the former NFL quarterback underwent four neck surgeries. He asked Manning, "How's it feeling?"
"He said, ‘Not that great,'" Tiger recounted. "'How many push-ups can you do?’ ‘I can do six push-ups.’ He goes out and wins MVP that year.
“So just because someone doesn't have the strength to do something,” Tiger pointed out, “he's going to figure out a different way, and that's what we were talking about when we played, is that I don't have a fastball, he can't zip the ball into those tight little windows. He has to anticipate more. He has to do more work in the film room. I had to do more work on managing my game, my body, understanding it, what I can and cannot do, shots that I see I could pull off or better save it for another day. And more than anything, trying to figure out how to be explosive day in and day out.
“Peyton did an incredible job, won a couple MVPs, Super Bowl, all with a fused neck. That's ridiculous. It goes to show you how talented he is and how smart he is.”
After winning the Masters in April 2002, Tiger came to Bethpage Black in June and captured the U.S. Open title, beating Phil Mickelson by three shots to claim what was then his sixth major championship in a span of nine majors.
The anticipation of Woods accomplishing a similar feat this time around has the New York crowds buzzing with excitement.
His preparation for this championship has included playing a practice round last week, playing nine holes Monday and a practice session Tuesday. He also plans to play nine holes Wednesday.
With a premium on driving accuracy -- to keep the ball out of the thick rough -- and precise iron shots to many of the small, elevated greens on a layout that will play over 7,459 yards, with quite a distance in between many of the holes, Woods realizes how much stamina will play into the test on Bethpage Black.
When I asked him about stamina and how he prepared for it, he said: "This is a bigger golf course. There's a lot of property -- I wouldn't say not necessarily a lot of movement in features, but there's enough. There's definitely going to be a component to stamina as the week goes on. Four days over a tough championship that is mentally and physically taxing takes its toll.
“This is not only a big golf course, but this is going to be a long week the way the golf course is set up and potentially could play. This could be a hell of a championship.”
It’s a test that the "new" version of Tiger Woods, with his revised way of training and preparing for a championship, is ready to take on.