DUBLIN, Ohio — When he was younger, Tiger Woods looked forward to getting older.
“Because I was getting better and better and better,” he said Friday.
Life is tricky. Woods, 44, no longer thinks so highly of the passage of time.
“Aging is not fun,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to hold on.”
Well before dawn Friday, Woods awoke for his 8:17 a.m. tee time. The fused vertebrae in his surgically reconstructed back felt good and he was eager to build on his solid opening round on Thursday at the Memorial Tournament — his first appearance on the PGA Tour since mid-February.
Arriving at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, with a bright sun at his back that cast a glow across the practice range, Woods began to warm up with some carefree swings of a wedge. But in the progression to faster swings with more stress-inducing clubs, especially his woods, something went wrong.
His goal had been to loosen up, but in the tangled web of reshaped bone, scar tissue, musculature and arthritis that is now Woods’s lower back, an opposite result unfolded. He felt more tight and his movements grew more restricted.
Woods was asked Friday if that kind of double-cross happened very often.
“Yeah, it does,” he answered.
A follow-up question: “So you never know exactly what you’re going to have each day?”
Woods smiled broadly and replied: “It’s going to happen more times than not.”
By the end of Friday’s second round, Woods gingerly walked off the golf course having spent 18 holes wincing, flinching, limping and ardently pressing his hands against his lower back. With a round of 76 that left him three-over-par for the tournament, it appeared that the highly anticipated return of Woods was only going to last two days. But golf can be as fickle as a bad back. A host of golfers struggled Friday — Bryson DeChambeau made a quintuple-bogey 10 on one hole — and Woods survived the two-day cut of the field by one stroke.
Woods finished Friday 12 strokes behind the second-round leaders Tony Finau and Ryan Palmer and hardly in contention. But as Woods said hours before the cut line was established: “I would like to have the opportunity to play tomorrow.”
It was a gutsy proclamation after the discomfort Woods had clearly endured.
Throughout the latter half of his round, Woods had difficulty making a full backswing on tee shots with a driver or a 3-wood, and when trying to unleash his typically powerful swipe at the ball, he was unable to hold the club with both hands. With his right hand coming off the club grip, he repeatedly hit weaker shots that faded to the right. Eventually, he seemed to start aiming to the left to compensate.
“It was a bit of struggle,” he said, adding: “I’m a lot older now, so things change, they evolve. You try to suck it up as best you can and get through it.”
Woods’s playing partner, Rory McIlroy, saw what was happening.
“Yeah, you could sort of tell when we made the turn, he hit a couple fairway wood shots off the tee that he sort of quit on,” said McIlroy, the No. 1 ranked golfer on the tour. “He wasn’t quite moving as well.”
During those holes, there was a post-swing scene that recurred for Woods: With a pained expression, he would watch a wayward tee shot land in deep rough, then sigh and softly mumble something to himself under his breath.
McIlroy was asked if Woods said anything about his back troubling him.
“No, not really, I mean, you can tell — he might make a bit of a grimace after a shot,” McIlroy said. He continued: “He’s never been one to make excuses, right? So, no, he’s never going to do that.”
In the end, Woods gave himself a chance to make the cut by finding the resolve to shoot two-under par on his final three holes. On the par-5 seventh hole — his 16th hole of the day because he began his round on the 10th tee — Woods’s spectacular recovery from a greenside bunker left a two-foot birdie putt. He then sank a 20-foot birdie putt on the 209-yard, par-3 eighth hole after an impressive tee shot to an elevated green.
His 3-wood off the ninth tee elicited another wince and a shot well right of the fairway. Standing over his ball, Woods considered a miracle shot around, through or over a cluster of trees in his path to the green. It was a tempting choice since he might need a third successive birdie to play this weekend. Woods instead wedged back to the fairway and hit another wedge to the green. His last stroke of the day was a seven-foot par putt that fell into the hole.
Nonetheless, it was a comeback that appeared to be moot. At the time, the expected cut line was two-over par.
Woods, whose next PGA Tour victory will be his 83rd and set a career record for tour wins, chose to remember the positives of his finish. He spoke about a beloved golf term meant to describe the most persistent, dogged golfers who are known as grinders.
“Anyone who fights all day, I think that’s the guys that have typically been grinders,” Woods said. “Guys that don’t ever want to make bogeys.”
He was asked if he considered himself one.
“Always have,” he said.