Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have played four of their last eight rounds together in the same group, and over that stretch of time, they are only a combined 3 under par. Woods and McIlroy were in the same group for the first two rounds of the PGA Championship where even-par was a so-so score, and they were unable to shoot much better than that. Then, at The Northern Trust last week, where Dustin Johnson reached 30 under, they played both weekend rounds together and shot just a combined 2 under.
D.J. clipped Rory by 28 at TPC Boston and got Tiger by 24 — a tough scene for two golfers who have a combined 100 PGA Tour wins. There are a million reasons for their mediocre (especially by Tiger and Rory standards) play, but one interesting reason is one I would not have thought of coming into the PGA Tour’s restart in early June.
I was of the opinion that a fan-less restart would be a great benefit to somebody like Tiger — and, to a lesser extent, Rory — because of the circus of spectators he endures on a weekly basis. Two years ago, Rory said the number of folks that follow Tiger around cost him two shots a tournament. It stands to reason that with fans erased because of COVID-19 protocol that Tiger (and those playing with him) would gain those two strokes back.
That’s not how it’s played out, though.
“This is going to sound really bad, but I feel like the last few weeks, I’ve just been going through the motions,” said McIlroy. “I want to get an intensity and some sort of fire, but I just haven’t been able to. And look, that’s partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I’m playing. I’m not inspiring myself, and I’m trying to get inspiration from outside sources to get something going.”
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It’s certainly two-fold with McIlroy. I watched their Saturday round pretty closely, and it was completely listless — just nothing going on. No show to put on because there was nobody to witness it. But Rory’s statistics have also been uninspiring since the restart, especially given how well he was playing when everything shut down in March. It’s both internal and external.
Woods, on the other hand, wasn’t playing at all in March. He’d been out for a while because of some injuries and was skipping a Players Championship that was canceled after Round 1. His play has been all right since he started back up at the Memorial Tournament six weeks ago, but not anywhere near what we’re accustomed to. Some of that must be attributed to an environment he’s completely unaccustomed to dealing with.
“It is different [without fans],” said Woods after shooting his best round of the year, a 66 on Sunday at TPC Boston. “It is very different. You just don’t know where the ball lands sometimes. You’re expecting the roars and you don’t hear anything. … Obviously the energy is not anywhere near the same. There isn’t the same amount of anxiety and pressure and people yelling at you and trying to grab your shirt, a hat off you. This is a very different world we live in.
“You hit good shots and you get on nice little runs. We don’t have the same energy, the same fan energy,” he added. “It is different. Normally you may have like a Thursday or Friday morning round when there’s no one out here, by the time you get around the turn, people start coming around. But it’s been like that from the word go, and yeah, it is very different.”
It hasn’t been different for everyone. Way back when fans were allowed to come to events, guys like Harris English and Scottie Scheffler were not exactly huge draws from these galleries. Still, guys like Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas were, and they have all won since the restart. It’s something Tiger and Rory and other stars and superstars will have to adapt to, even if it has disproportionately affected them. There are innumerable ways COVID-19 has affected the sports world, and this is certainly one of the smaller ones. However, when Tiger Woods is involved, nothing is ever small, nothing is ever too detailed.
As professional golf marches on into the rest of 2020 and beyond that, with no sign of fans returning anywhere on the horizon, this is something to consider as Tiger goes for major No. 16 and PGA Tour win No. 83 and Rory tries to get his fifth major — which he’s been stuck on for six years — and 19th PGA Tour win. Fan-less events are a bummer for myriad reasons, but they might be the biggest bummer for two of the best to ever play the game.