SAN FRANCISCO — The last question posed to Tiger Woods in his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday at Harding Park in advance of this week’s PGA Championship came from a reporter who asked him, “Can you win this week?’’
“Of course,’’ Woods said with a broad smile.
And just like that, Woods’ question-and-answer session was over before anyone could ask this follow-up question: “What makes you think that?’’
Because there are a lot of factors conspiring to make this a potentially-difficult week for Woods to succeed — whether success is measured by winning the tournament, contending or merely making the cut.
Let’s start with the fact that by the time he tees off his opening round alongside Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas on Thursday, Woods will have played four tournament rounds of golf in the past 170 days. He’s played in only three tournaments in 2020.
Add into that equation the weather this week in San Francisco is expected to be cool (60s) and damp (fog, mist marine layer), particularly in the mornings. And Woods’ 44-year-old surgically-repaired body prefers the searing heat and suffocating humidity he plays in at home in South Florida.
Add to that the fact that there are a dozen younger, better-fit star players who are entering this week in top form, beginning with newly-minted No. 1-ranked Thomas, Brooks Koepka, who appears to have found his form just in time to go for a three-peat at the PGA this week, McIlroy, who many believe to be the best all-around player in the world, Jon Rahm, who just won Memorial and was No. 1 before Thomas wrested it away with his win Sunday in Memphis.
That’s only the short list of players who figure to excel ahead of Woods. Those factors figure to be significant hurdles for Woods to overcome to capture his 16th career major championship this week.
Sure, Woods has a successful history at Harding Park, where he won the WGC-American Express in 2005, beating John Daly in a playoff, and going undefeated in the 2009 Presidents Cup.
But that Woods and this Woods are different beings. That Woods was the best player in the world back then. This Woods has a balky back and plays tournament golf about as often as the Augusta National members allow unaccompanied guests to play.
Nonetheless, this was Woods’ assessment of himself on Tuesday: “I feel good,’’ he said.
“Obviously, I haven’t played much competitively, but I’ve been playing a lot at home, so I’ve been getting plenty of reps that way,’’ he went on. “(I’m) just trying to get my way back into this part of the season. This is what I’ve been gearing up for. We’ve got a lot of big events starting from here, so looking forward to it.
“This is going to be a fun test for all of us. The rough is up. Fairways are much more narrow than they were here in 2009.’’
What about the physical challenges with the projected cool weather?
“For me when it’s cooler like this, it’s just making sure that my core stays warm, layering up properly,’’ Woods said. “I know I won’t have the same range of motion as I would back home in Florida where it’s 95 every day. That’s just the way it is.
“The ball doesn’t fly very far here. I’ve known that from all the years and times I’ve had to qualify up in this area (while playing college golf at nearby Stanford). It’s always 20 degrees cooler here than it is down there in Palo Alto. I think the weather forecast is supposed to be like this all week: Marine layer, cool, windy, and we are all going to have to deal with it.’’
Woods said he felt “very enthusiastic about some changes I’ve made’’ while practicing at home while, of course, declining to divulge them.
Asked what he got out of his four rounds at the Memorial a few weeks ago, his only tournament golf since he finished last at the Genesis Open at Riviera in February, Woods said, “More than anything, I had not had the competitive flow. I’ve been competing at home … but that’s so different than it is out here playing competitively in a tournament environment.
“Being patient is one of the things that I was real proud of out there, fighting hard as I did to make the cut. I birdied two of the last three holes and made a huge par putt on nine (his final hole in Friday’s second round). Those are all positive things I look back on.’’
But will they be enough to carry him into the winner’s circle this week?