For better or worse, we re-discovered last week that one of the great sports within the sport of golf is still Tiger-watching.
The return of Woods to the professional scene in Ohio – after months of rumor, mystery, innuendo and enough speculation to fill a thousand thumb drives – was at once fast-paced and a slow reveal.
Tuesday at the WGC-Bridgestone, Woods showed up in the press room and gave us a quick fix of Tiger-Speak. His ball-striking, he said, was producing nice, tight “start lines.”
What he didn’t elaborate on was the growth on his chin. As hirsute proclivities go, it wasn’t as shocking (pun intended) as Ryo Ishikawa’s new haircut. It was more like the kind of soul patch crime writer Elmore Leonard used to describe as a “little be-bop growth.” Were there unspeakable tattoos lurking under Tiger’s fancy Nike duds? Who knows, who knows?
But this much was certain: The Tiger Woods who had us at “Hello, world” 15 years ago, had our full attention once again.
On Wednesday, former Woods running mate Charles Barkley went on a New York radio show and hammered Woods, adding, “I’m confused as to where he’s going.”
The answer was Akron and Firestone Country Club, where the rubber of Tiger’s latest comeback was about to meet the road to his athletic future.
Thursday morning’s (ital) Wall Street Journal (end ital) brought a headline that proclaimed, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” And it was more about Woods and his erstwhile relationship with golf followers than it was about his divorce from wife Elin or his split with caddie Stevie.
Who knew that before the sun set over grueling Firestone that day the Dow would tank more than 500 points and Tiger’s stock as a player would soar like a Silicon Valley IPO?
His first full round of competitive golf since April produced a crisp 2-under 68 that included five of 14 fairways hit, 12 of 18 greens in regulation, 27 putts, three birdies, one bogey and a share of 18th place with names such as McIlroy, Fowler, Garcia, Donald and Ogilvy.
Much more interesting were the 10 times he used driver without any wild misses and the five one-putts he conjured on the six holes he needed to save par.
Then there were the soft-spike golf shoes he wore for the first time in his professional career. “The soft shoes are making (it),” said a breathless Nick Faldo on TV. “Forcing him to swing at 80 percent.”
And thereby helping to protect the ravaged left knee and damaged Achilles that many still think will prevent him from scaling Mt. Nicklaus and planting his flag atop the Golden Bear’s 18 professional majors.
“No qualms,” Woods said smugly after the round.
When Golf Channel’s Steve Sands asked a perfectly legitimate question about when Woods knew the knee was going to be okay during the round, Tiger dismissed the premise with his usual post-round, non-responsive, guarded claptrap about “birdies” and “bogeys.”
Look out, world: Tiger As Brat was still alive and well, too.
You may have lost all respect for Woods in the past two years. Or you may still be one of his unconditionally loving fans. But of this there can be no debate: The cut 3-wood second shot he carved from the right rough that rocketed miles up the long 16th fairway was glorious and painlessly obvious.
“Smoked it,” Woods said.
This was all quite delicious. There were still three more rounds to be played. And bubbling up from just beneath the surface was a sub-plot straight out of a Dan Jenkins novel:
The 18-hole leader at 8-under 62 was Aussie Adam Scott, who still swings like Woods used to and now employs the jilted and sneering Williams as his caddie.
Alas, rust, notably absent in Round One, scratched its way to the surface Friday in the form of erratic putting and dodgy distance control. Woods acknowledged both after a 71 left him well back in the pack. But what he didn’t and wouldn’t ever admit was that an experienced Williams on the bag might have talked him off of a few key wrong club selections.
By the end of Saturday, a dodgy 72 left Woods 13 shots behind leader Steve Williams … er … Adam Scott. The magic that has defined his career was missing.
“I’m not other players,” Woods had said curtly, when asked Friday if he might be better off lowering his expectations until his body completely heals the way other players do when they come back from injuries.
It turned out to be the truest thing the 35-year-old Woods said all week. And a Sunday 70 that produced a T38 bore it out: Tiger Woods isn’t “other players” anymore. At least not now. Judged by his own lofty standard, he’s not even close.
Prior to Firestone, close to 20 of the 27 players ranked ahead of Tiger in the Official World Golf Ranking were younger than Woods. There’s a whole generation of future stars un-scarred and un-scared by the Woods’ dominance that limited the major championship trophy cases of contemporaries such as Mickelson and Els.
The bright side for Woods appears to be the soundness of the knee and Achilles. But clearly he must be more patient. And that’s a quality he has never possessed in abundance.