Tiger Woods touched down in his private jet in Tulsa on Sunday and after all the negativity of defending champion Phil Mickelson withdrawing, suddenly there is a hugely positive light set on the 104th US PGA Championship.
While Mickelson pulled out on Friday – continuing a three-month competitive absence in the midst of the controversy of his involvement of the Saudi breakaway tour – Woods has been enjoying a highly unfamiliar time out of the spotlight as it focused on his left-handed rival .
But now the attention switches to the 46-year-old – who made such a memorable return to competitive action at last month’s Masters – as it becomes apparent he is going to play in the season’s second major.
Unless Woods is in Oklahoma to see the wind come sweeping down the plain, he is there to build on his extraordinary comeback at Augusta.
Without a competitive appearance in 17 months after a car crash in which he almost lost his right leg, Woods incredibly made the cut and despite his doubts afterwards that his body would recover in time for Tulsa, once again Woods is clearly upending expectations in the second time in two months.
Woods signified his desire to play at the layout where he won the most recent of his four Wanamaker Trophies – in 2007 – when playing a practice round at Southern Hills two weeks ago. His playing partner of him that day-the Southern Hills head pro Cary Cozby-was certainly impressed.
“Everything is so smooth with him now. His rhythm is great, he hit it straight and plenty far, he pitched and putted it great,” Cozby said. “I know guys can hit it past him now, but watching him work was amazing. He’s so meticulous, detailed and immersed in what he’s doing. He was very inquisitive on lines and the best angles.
“I think I can contend. He’s like Michael Jordan late in his career, playing defense and hitting jump shots. Whoever wins here is going to have to be a great chipper and he is still that.”
Woods shocked everyone by turning up at The Masters and reeled off an astonishing first-round 71 before making the cut and finishing in the top 50. Curtis Strange, the two-time major champion, believes that to be “surreal” but now thinks Woods will not be satisfied by simply making it to the weekend.
“We look back on it and it was fortunate he saved his leg,” Strange said. “He was fortunate to be alive, and there he is trying to play Augusta, and he did. When he just teed it up on Thursday I thought it was a victory of sorts, and I think he mentioned that as well.
“Then when he made the cut, I just thought it was terrific; terrific that he tried, terrific that he gave it an effort, terrific that he played pretty well for not playing in such a long time.
“I think he was pleased for the week, I really do, that he found out what he could do. And now he, not only we, but I think he’ll expect a lot more out of himself as well. I really do That he found out what he could do, and now he — not only we, but I think he’ll expect a lot more out of himself as well.”
And another two-time major winner believes the warm weather will suit the 15-time major winner’s golf game. “He’s had another five weeks or so to work on his body from him and get stronger,” Andy North said. “It’s going to be warmer, which he likes. I thought that the cold weather on the weekend (at Augusta) really did a disservice to him.
“Southern Hills is not the easiest walk in the world, but it’s not like Augusta. I think overall he’s probably in a better place than he was the Thursday before the Masters. It will be interesting to see if his play indicates that.
Meanwhile, England’s Paul Casey withdrew from the season’s second major of the year – just like he did the Masters – because of his recurring back injury. There are 16 months until the next Ryder Cup and there is ample time for Casey, the world No 24, to return to the heights that have made him such a valued member of the Europe team. But at 44, Casey’s injury list is concerning.