KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Tiger Woods gazed up every time he heard thunder crackling in the distance or the rain pounding the tent Tuesday, the kind of weather that could keep Kiawah Island from playing the way he would prefer at the PGA Championship.
Even more of a nuisance were the words written on a banner below the table where he sat.
"The Season's Final Major. Glory's Last Shot."
As if he needed a reminder.
This suddenly has become familiar territory for Woods. The PGA Championship is his last chance this year to resume pursuit of the record 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus. The number associated with Woods is 14 — not only is that how many majors he has won, this is the 14th major he has played since winning his last one.
He was tied for the lead halfway through the U.S. Open until stumbling to a 75-73 weekend at Olympic Club and not even cracking the top 20. He was in the penultimate group at the British Open, only to lose momentum with a triple bogey on the sixth hole of the final round.
That used to constitute failure. Now it's progress.
"I'm pleased at the way I was able to play at certain times, and obviously disappointed that I did not win," Woods said. "I've played in three major championships this year, and I didn't win any of them. That's the goal. I was there at the U.S. Open after two days, and I was right there with a chance at the British Open. Things have progressed, but still, not winning a major championship doesn't feel very good."
Winning majors has rarely been harder. Such is the parity in golf these days that 16 players have won the last 16 majors, the longest streak in 25 years.
Woods attributes that to stronger and deeper fields, and scores so bunched that even players who are nine or 10 shots back going into the weekend have a chance to win.
Bubba Watson attributes it to Woods.
"Tiger Woods has made the game grow," Watson said. "He's grown this game across the world. People are watching him. People are watching how he practiced, how he trained, how he made golf a physical game. I mean, he's strong. He's a big man. He can play it with power and he can play it with precision. He can play it with a mental game."
Woods used to say that it couldn't be a great year without a major. He could take care of that with a win at Kiawah Island, filling in the final piece as he tries to put his game back together. He could return to No. 1 in the world for the first time since Oct. 31, 2010, if he were to win the PGA Championship.
But that's not what drives Woods. It's the majors. That's always been the case.
He went to the 2009 PGA Championship without a major and gave up a two-shot lead to Y.E. Yang on the last day at Hazeltine. While Woods likes to say he plays every tournament to win, that was unrealistic the last two times. One year, he was getting divorced from his wife and looking for a new swing coach. Another year, he had gone three months without playing because of leg injuries and just starting to feel healthy.
Now, there are no excuses. He is the favorite at Kiawah. He has been the favorite at every major this year.
"This year, I've won three tournaments, and it's been a pretty good year," Woods said. "I've been in there with a chance to win a few more. Physically, my game is way different than what it was last year. It's been nice to be able to practice after each round, to have that option. That wasn't the case last year. My game has improved because of it. And here we are."
Where does he go?
Nowhere without a rain suit based on the last early part of the week.
Luke Donald, in his seventh straight major as the world No. 1, was among the first to tee off in a practice round Tuesday. He faced a 25 mph wind off the Atlantic as clouds gathered, and it started pouring 45 minutes later. There was only a breeze, from the other direction, when he got back on the golf course.
"Obviously, the conditions are changing from hour to hour, and that's making it difficult," Donald said.
With lightening in the area, players were called off and huddled under the clubhouse that separates the two nines at the Ocean Course. Not much longer after they raced to get in some practice, it began raining anew.
There is plenty of sand at Kiawah Island, but no bunkers. The PGA of America has declared everything "through the green," meaning all sand will be called "sandy areas" instead of bunkers. Players can ground their clubs and take practice swings. Rakes will be left there to smooth their sand only as a courtesy.
By early afternoon, some of the "sandy areas" looked more like small ponds.
That figures to make Kiawah play every bit of its 7,676 yards — by 2 yards the longest in major championship history — if officials decide to play it all the way back. That would seem to favor the big hitters, and Woods is still in that class. Even so, he sounded disappointed.
"I like the test that a firm golf course brings," Woods said. "It just brings more shot making into the equation. You have to throw the ball up, but you throw the ball up with the right spin. You've got to land the ball in the correct spots. With it a little bit softer like this, the greens will be holding. But then again, with it being like this, there's no bump-and-run. It's just too soft."
That speaks to how Woods feels about his game. It's good enough to win anywhere. He showed that with a five-shot victory at Bay Hill, with a come-from-behind win at the Memorial, and with his late rally to win at Congressional in the AT&T National.
The majors? That's been a different story. And there's only one left this year for him to change that.