DUBLIN, OHIO | On a soft Wednesday morning, before the afternoon heat hit the accelerator, Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau made their way together around the front nine at Muirfield Village, playing a casual practice round in advance of the Memorial Tournament.
There was the usual chitchat and the obligatory putting to tees stuck in various greens, checking out likely pin positions to be used this week in the practice round matchup instigated by DeChambeau.
No question, Woods was paying close attention to the game’s bazooka-powered muscleman. While he said DeChambeau never really let loose with the driver during their nine holes together, he had to notice the 50 or so yards he trailed DeChambeau after their tee shots at the sixth hole or how DeChambeau’s hybrid finished more than 20 yards in front of Woods’ 3-wood off the ninth tee.
Woods, now 44 years old, even jokingly asked for a yardage over fairway bunkers on the right side of the first hole after DeChambeau hammered a tee shot on that unlikely line to start his day.
A couple of hours later, DeChambeau tried to explain the impact Woods had on him as a young player and, in the process, offered a backhanded compliment.
“Back in the day, he was it. He was the golden star. He was the one everybody looked up to,” DeChambeau said. “I can tell you that the junior golfers that I played with were all inspired by Tiger and how far he hit it and how he dominated tournaments …
“Even now, he’s hitting it pretty long. There were a couple holes he hit 320, 325. I’m like, that’s pretty good for his age. It’s amazing for his age.”
That’s where the game – and DeChambeau – is today.
Somewhere over the rainbow.
Woods and DeChambeau are dueling centerpieces in the most important event to date in this pandemic-interrupted season. One calendar year since the last major championship was played, the Memorial Tournament features the strongest regular PGA Tour event field in history, according to those who concoct mathematical equations based on world golf rankings.
It would be significant enough that someone will walk into Jack Nicklaus’ handshake late Sunday afternoon (COVID-19 concerns aside, the tournament host intends to go old school with the winner), but this week pulls together all the disparate strings tying together the game’s restart six weeks ago.
“I think that the tour probably made the right decision as it relates to the Memorial Tournament. Maybe we are a little too early for the galleries. We didn’t have a problem with it.” – Jack Nicklaus
How else to explain Rory McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked player, being practically overlooked in the pre-tournament cogitations and proclamations, all because he’s finished outside the top 10 in his past three starts, cooling a sizzling stretch of play.
The fact that Woods is playing his first tournament in five months does more than restart the discussion of whether he will win his record-setting 83rd PGA Tour title this week. It changes the feel and the value of the week because he’s still Tiger.
Can he win?
It’s a stretch given his competitive inactivity since he finished last among players who made the cut at the Genesis Invitational five months and one pandemic ago. But he’s won here five times and moved Wednesday morning like a man who feels good.
One interesting number regarding Woods:
This is only his fourth start (including the Hero World Challenge) since winning the Zozo Championship and tying Sam Snead’s career victory record last fall.
“I would like to say that I’m going to win the event. That’s my intent,” Woods said Tuesday.
That’s been his answer since before he said, “Hello world,” 24 years ago.
Whatever happens this week will again unfold without an in-person audience other than Nicklaus himself and a handful of others watching from behind the 18th green.
This was to have been the first tournament with spectators on site since the tour’s March 13 shutdown. Organizers reversed course early last week after learning that some players preferred keeping their distance and the no-fans policy will remain in effect at least through the Tour Championship in early September.
Nicklaus agreed to the change after hearing the players’ concerns, though he had hoped to let the Memorial Tournament be a celebration of sorts.
“I think that the tour probably made the right decision as it relates to the Memorial Tournament,” Nicklaus said. “Maybe we are a little too early for the galleries. We didn’t have a problem with it.”
Asked Wednesday when galleries might return to golf events, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan pointed to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in mid-September as a hopeful target, but offered no certainties.
Had there been galleries at Muirfield Village on Sunday for the final round of last week’s Workday event, the roars might still be echoing from the thunderbolt birdies Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas made against each other in their playoff. Instead, it happened as if someone had hit the mute button, another byproduct of the pandemic.
“I definitely think that putt that Collin had to make on top of Justin was a little easier because he didn’t have to deal with 10,000 people around the green having to settle down again,” McIlroy said.
On the neighborhood streets around Muirfield Village, there are signs directing visitors that won’t be coming to tournament parking areas and on the golf course, there are hospitality structures that will remain empty.
Without the hillsides covered with fans, Sunday afternoon could feel like Wednesday morning.
But it won’t.
Not a chance.
Top: Tiger Woods during a practice round before the Memorial Tournament (Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images)
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