Tiger still plans to make his tee time on Thursday at the PGA Championship, while Phil has cancelled—opting instead to remain behind his curtain of silence. This is only the fifth time in the last sixty years that a major champion has failed to defend his title. Three of the previous four were due to injury (Art Wall-1960, Tiger-2008, Rory-2015) and the fourth was the 2000 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart was tragically killed in a plane crash. While the reason Phil has abruptly pulled out of the PGA is shrouded in mystery, the unfortunate result will be further damage to his image and legacy.
Tiger, on the other hand, has once again done the seemingly impossible, playing the Masters last month—and making the cut in his first start in more than year while favorites like Koepka, Spieth and Xander Schauffele were packing up and heading home on Friday. The odds makers will no doubt make Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm the favorites to win, but the overwhelming majority of fans will tune in to see the old guy—so let’s take a look at his chances.
Southern Hills will put far less stress on Tiger’s leg than the constant climbing at Augusta National, and 5 weeks of recovery between starts will undoubtedly help. Completing four rounds at a major championship, and the certainty that his body can still perform at the highest level of tournament competition, is also a tremendous step forward. The big question is—how much did Augusta take out of him? It was impossible to miss the pain he was playing through, particularly on Saturday and Sunday. Pushing through pain, however, is nothing new to Tiger (winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg comes immediately to mind). He also gave up a lot of distance off the tee at Augusta (Tiger averaged 285 yards, in comparison to McIlroy who led the field at 318). On the other hand, Scottie Scheffler was twenty yards behind Rory at 298 yards—and he’s wearing a green jacket (he did pump it up to 311 on Sunday, however). Power has always been synonymous with Tiger, but what set him apart from the moment he came out on Tour was mental toughness and an unmatched ability to focus, most notably on the greens where it matters the most. The number of clutch putts Tiger has drained over the course of his career is impossible to count. On Thursday and Friday at the Masters, he putted like the Tiger we are accustomed to seeing with 24 putts on Thursday and 28 on Friday. The weekend was a different story though, with 36 putts on Saturday and 34 on Sunday—where it appeared that the pain and discomfort finally impacted Tiger’s ability to maintain focus.
Southern Hills is a long course at 7,481 yards from the tips, but while length off the tee will certainly provide an advantage, the challenge will be taming extremely firm and fast greens with diabolical fall-offs to very tight lies. And that is where Tiger is always at his best. Keep in mind as well that Tiger won the PGA at Southern Hills in 2007, so he will have pretty good karma when he tees it up on Thursday. And something tells me Tiger will have a bit more juice on his tee ball in his second comeback start. The key will be the putting though, and how he feels physically heading into the weekend. Everyone has seen Tiger literally “will” the ball into the hole—particularly when a major championship is on the line. While winning may seem like a long shot, remember that this is Tiger—where everything is possible.
The absence of a public statement from Phil leaves only speculation with regard to his sudden withdrawal from the PGA. The Alan Shipnuck “tell-all” book on Phil is scheduled for release two days prior to the start of the championship, so perhaps Phil believes that his absence will result in less public attention to the book. This doesn’t seem to be a likely reason, however, since the release date has been set for some time now. Some are saying that Phil may feel his game simply isn’t sharp enough after such a long lay-off from tournament competition. This wouldn’t appear to be a factor either, since he’s had plenty of time to practice over the past few months, and he could have pulled out weeks ago. The prevailing conjecture is that Phil is annoyed because the Tour denied his application for a waiver to compete in the LIV event this summer in London, and he is trying to exact some retribution. Unfortunately, if that is the case this will only add to the damage Phil’s image has sustained over the past few months. One thing is certain, the media frenzy and pressure on Phil as defending Champion has been building for some time, and would have reached a boiling point by the time the first round of the tournament got under way.
It’s possible that the confluence of events created an atmosphere where Phil just felt he could not perform to the standard he expects from himself, and he felt it was best for the other players as well to avoid a media circus. Still, it is a blow to his faithful fans who have stood behind him all these years, and were no doubt ready to cheer him on—win or lose.