OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Tiger Woods at Olympia Fields Country Club brought concerns about the state of his game.
That was the case 17 years ago going into the U.S. Open at the Chicago-area course. Never mind that Woods was trying to repeat as the tournament's champion. He had gone all of four events without winning. At that stage in his career, it was enough to raise questions about a slump.
Not much has changed this week ahead of the BMW Championship, with a slight change in the narrative. It's not about whether he can win a major; it's whether he can avoid another early end to his PGA Tour season.
Woods has gone four tournaments outside the top 35 in the FedEx Cup rankings — three of those since golf returned from the COVID-19 pandemic in June — and he likely needs to finish among the top four against a 69-man field to reach the season-ending Tour Championship. The top 30 advance to Atlanta's East Lake Country Club to compete for a $15 million prize.
"I have to play well. I have to earn my way to East Lake," said Woods, who is No. 57 in the standings. "I haven't done so yet and need a big week in order to advance. If I don't, then I go home. This is a big week for me. I'm looking forward to getting out there and playing and competing."
He'll be doing that on a course that is only familiar in its look — tree-lined, a few elevated greens, fairways framed by rough that can cover the top of his shoes and quick, contoured greens.
But then, it's not familiar to many at the second of three FedEx Cup postseason events. Woods, Paul Casey, Charles Howell III and Adam Scott are the only players who competed in that 2003 U.S. Open (Woods tied for 20th) who are in the field for the event that tees off Thursday at Olympia Fields. Bryson DeChambeau won the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields, which featured five other players in the BMW Championship field, including reigning PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa.
Harris English won a college tournament here a decade ago while playing for the Georgia Bulldogs.
"I remember how great a test it was," the Baylor School graduate said said. "It's just a tough golf course. I don't think you're going to see the scores like you did last week. It's going to be a good warmup for the other tournaments coming up, with the Tour Championship and then the U.S. Open. I know we're all excited to be here."
Dustin Johnson overwhelming the field and the course last weekend in The Northern Trust at TPC Boston, winning by 11 shots and finishing at 30-under-par 254, one shot away from two 72-hole scoring records on the PGA Tour.
That put Johnson atop the FedEx Cup standings, and he's not likely to fall far. For some, this week is about improving their position going to the Tour Championship, which features a staggered start to par. The No. 1 seed starts the week at 10 under, down to par for the final five players.
Because of the shorter season from having lost three months to the pandemic, the points count only triple instead of quadruple, and movement isn't as severe. The top 20 or so are locked into East Lake.
Among those on the bubble are Tony Finau at No. 29, and players such as Patrick Cantlay (No. 37) and 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (No. 39), who have ground to make up.
For Woods, the math is simple. He needs a top finish or he has two weeks off ahead of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, which wouldn't be the worst dilemma he has faced.
If it took time for Woods to remember the holes at Olympia Fields, the routing might confuse him. The course was reconfigured for the U.S. Open because the closing holes don't have a lot of room for thousands of fans, much less hospitality structures. But when the BMW Championship had to go without fans, the routing was returned to the way it is for the members.
Regardless of the order of holes, they are strong.
"We've played a lot of short and soft golf courses, and this is far from short and soft," Thomas said. "For the most part, I think there's a reason this place held a U.S. Open. It's kind of in a league of its own in my opinion."
Woods played the nine back alone late Tuesday afternoon, and he played the front nine Wednesday morning with Rory McIlroy, with whom he played the final two rounds at TPC Boston last weekend.
Woods said he looked at few videos of Olympia Fields before he arrived. The course is longer. That much was evident when he had to walk back 150 yards from the green to the next tee. Holes that once required irons off the tee might allow the biggest hitters to go with driver to reach wider portions of the fairway.
If he doesn't make it to East Lake, it sounds as though this might be a good tune-up course for Winged Foot.
"I have to get the ball in play here and the put the ball in the right spots," he said. "This golf course is set up more toward an Open than it is anything else."
Tiger's design debut plans
Woods is unveiling his first public golf course design with an exhibition that will be the closest golf gets to a Ryder Cup match this year.
The Payne's Valley Cup will be played Sept. 22, the Tuesday after the U.S. Open, at Payne's Valley Golf Course at Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri.
Woods and Thomas will be the United States team that takes on McIlroy and Justin Rose of Europe. The 18-hole match will be televised live on Golf Channel with players wearing mics. It will feature elements of the Ryder Cup, with a mix of foursomes, fourballs and singles.
Mostly, though, it's a chance to show off the first public course of TGR Design. The other courses from his design group have been either private or resort courses. This one is a tribute to Payne Stewart, the three-time major champion who died in a plane crash in 1999, a month after the Americans won the Ryder Cup at Brookline Country Club in the Boston area.
Stewart was a native of the Ozarks. The event will raise money for the Payne Stewart Family Foundation.
"Payne's Valley is the first public golf course that I have designed. I couldn't be prouder of how it turned out," Woods said.
It will be the second made-for-TV exhibition Woods plays this year. He teamed with Peyton Manning to compete against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in May to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts and to showcase golf as it prepared to return from the three-month shutdown brought on by the pandemic.
This one features four players who all have been No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and won major championships, most of that belonging to Woods. He has 15 major titles and was No. 1 for a record 683 weeks.
The event will be closed to the public, except for a select group hosted by Big Cedar Lodge.
The Payne's Valley Golf Course was the idea of Johnny Morris, a conservationist who founded Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge, where the PGA Tour Champions has played the past two weeks.
"Tiger and I have a 20-year friendship that started through fishing and has evolved into a great partnership. We look forward to showcasing this destination to the world through the Payne's Valley Cup," Morris said.
One unique element of the course is a par-3 19th hole designed by Morris. Players then cross a nature trail through a cave system to return to the clubhouse.