LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The only place where people were not hyperventilating whenever Tiger Woods twitched his back Wednesday was the players' locker room at Valhalla Golf Club.
A dozen minutes after Woods pulled his sparking silver Mercedes SUV into the players' lot in the early afternoon, he cut through the clubhouse and locker room on the way to the practice tee.
Norman Callahan, the guy who has run the clubhouse from the day Valhalla opened, clapped as Woods entered. Woods' locker, tucked between Y. E. Yang and Lanny Wadkins, 12th from the aisle in the second row, has been ready for Woods since Sunday night.
“Thank you, sir,” Woods said quietly.
He just kept walking, heading to the balcony and then down the steps to start preparing for the practice holes he played Wednesday afternoon.
That was it.
Nobody else bothered him. Nobody else said a word. They just waited for the show to begin.
Eventually a wave of cynicism washed through the room. A pair of players watched the wall-to-wall coverage on the Gold Channel of Woods hitting practice shots and snickered.
“He just pulled out of a tournament on Sunday and now he's ready to play again?” one said. “That shouldn't be allowed.”
But the players know the reality of Planet Tiger: Rory McIlroy is spectacular player, making shots nobody else can make, the PGA favorite. Phil Mickelson can stir hoots and hollers from any gallery. The crowds surrounding Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott and other young players get bigger every week.
But Tiger Woods is the story of every major championship because he has won 14 and still expects to win more.
This time Woods is a different kind of story, the kind of story Woods has never been in his 18-year professional career – an underdog story.
Back surgery in late March. Six-year gap since his last major title. Withdraws from the Bridgestone Invitational with raging back pain three days earlier. Asks the PGA of America for an extension before making a decision on entering the 96th Championship.
Shows up at Valhalla, the place where he won the PGA title 14 years ago, for the first time less than 19 hours before his first tee time. Says he is pain free and that the new pain was unrelated to the back surgery. Says he plans to make his tee time with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington at 8:35 a.m. Thursday. Said he was here to win.
Woods' career has been packed with epic moments. This would move to the head of the class, bigger than Augusta, St. Andrews or Pebble Beach.
Tiger Woods winning when few expected him to play, never mind win. That's never happened. That would be the talk of the town.
It would reignite the talk that Woods has a legitimate shot to catch – and then overtake – Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships. It would be a signature moment for Woods, Valhalla, the PGA Championship, golf. You didn't have to hear people shrieking his name Wednesday to understand how it would re-energize the game.
What would it take for Woods to win?
"Hit long shots and make birdies, kind of like I did in 2000," Woods said after playing his first nine practice holes.
Can Woods win?
I doubt it.
He has played in six events this year. Twice he has withdrawn. He missed one cut. He has not finished better than 25th. He placed 69th in the British Open. If somebody suggested any other golfer with this pedigree was going to win the PGA, you'd laugh. So would I.
But, yes, I remember that I predicted Woods was not even going to play here. How do you walk more than four miles up and down hills with a bad back? How do you do that four days in a row after walking off a golf course in pain several days ago?
How do you swing a golf club, especially on uneven ground in the rough or the sand, if your back is barking even a little bit? Don't you have to hesitate just a bit?
Woods looked better than expected Wednesday from the moment he began his methodical warm-up routine on the practice range – wedge shots, short irons, long irons, woods.
He looked flexible. He reached down to pick up balls. Woods even joked with his caddy, Joe LaCava, as he prepared to hit his first shot while starting his practice round with Steve Stricker, Davis Love III and Harris English.
“Those white things, the round things?” Woods said. “I need them.”
Woods knocked his first tee shot, a long iron, long and down the middle of the fairway. He stuck his approach shot within birdie distance on the green.
Two shots. Two reasons for optimism.
The rest of his round went well, too. No visible signs of wincing. No discomfort hitting from the deep grass. Woods played two balls on several holes, trying to remember how he dominated Valhalla when he shot 18-under-par before winning a playoff against Bob May in 2000.
Now Tiger Woods will try to do something he's never done – win a major championship when most of the world doubts that he can.