SAN MARTIN, Calif. — He wore his signature red shirt, ripped through his first six holes in four under par, and for a moment looked like he might birdie every hole. Tiger Woods looked like himself again at the Frys.com Open on Sunday, at least for a little while, and the golf world exhaled.
In shooting a final-round 68 to finish seven under par, well back in the pack, Woods showed glimpses of his old brilliance at CordeValle. It was a welcome sight for many in light of Woods's play at the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, where he missed the cut in his last start, and his controversial inclusion on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which will play at Royal Melbourne next month.
"I got better every day," Woods said after making six birdies Sunday, which gave him 19 for the week. "And I hit a lot of good putts the last three days, which is good. It was nice to make that adjustment there [adding two strips of lead tape on the putter] on the putting green after Thursday's round."
Woods hit eight fairways Sunday, his best performance of the week off the tee.
"The driver is just so much better," said Arjun Atwal, who has played several rounds with Woods in Orlando, and who was paired with Woods at the Frys.com on Sunday. "His misses aren't off the map anymore. I mean, he looked so good those first seven holes. I think it's just a matter of playing a little bit more."
Indeed, about the only things that didn't go according to plan for Woods at the Frys.com, the first Fall Series event he's ever played, were his 10 bogeys and one double-bogey. Oh, he also had a hot dog thrown at him as he stood on the seventh green, his 16th hole, on Sunday. The dog landed on the green, according to The Associated Press, but Woods ignored it before missing his birdie putt. (The dog thrower, a 31-year-old male, was handcuffed by security and charged with disturbing the peace.)
"Just an idiot," said Dan Diggins, the tournament's director of security. "But it wasn't a chili dog — it could've been really bad."
And that wasn't even the biggest crisis averted.
At 29th in the two-year Presidents Cup points race, in which the top 10 make the team automatically, Woods was the 19th most deserving player of one of the U.S. captain's picks last month. Brandt Snedeker, 11th in the standings, and Keegan Bradley, the PGA Championship winner and 20th in the standings, were thought by many to be more deserving. Yet captain Fred Couples chose the wobbly looking Woods and Bill Haas, who was 12th in the standings and an obvious choice, having won the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup two days before the selections were announced.
"Coming into this," a writer asked Woods, "how much pressure do you feel to play well to validate Fred's decision to name you on the Presidents Cup team?"
"Well, I'm just playing to get competitive and win a golf tournament," Woods replied. "It's not about validation."
Woods has the right to his own motivations, but Couples was and is on the hook for going so deep down the list of eligible players. And yet it's looking like fearless Fred's brave Tiger leap will be validated at Royal Melbourne, to judge from the last four days at beautiful CordeValle, where the attendance was expected to hit approximately 50,000 fans, up from 25-30,000 in Tigerless 2010.
"Tiger was a very easy pick," Couples said from the Champions tour's Insperity Championship at the Woodlands in Texas last week, before Woods had shown flashes of his old form at CordeValle. "Leaving Keegan Bradley off was an emotional morning. I wasn't really thrilled about it."
"We've been texting," Woods said, when asked if captain Couples might have been monitoring his progress. "There's no doubt."
It seems like only yesterday that the selection of Woods seemed like golf's version of college football's Bowl Championship Series, with Woods as UConn — possibly the worst team ever to play in a BCS game, last year — and either Snedeker, Bradley or Rickie Fowler (15th in points) playing the role of Boise State. Woods looked like the cynical play, a tacit acknowledgement that the Presidents Cup was first and foremost a commercial venture and not a legitimate competition.
But Woods proved he can still play good golf, putting the lie, for now, to the notion that he's washed up. He hammered drives dead center down the fairway Sunday and birdied five of his first eight holes on the way to a 32 before bogging down on the tougher front nine (36), as he had all week.
Woods did not win the Frys.com Open, but that's strict-constructionist thinking, because he had the relaxed, confident look of a winner. Laughing with pal Pat Perez; attending the Stanford football team's rout of Colorado with pal Atwal, Stanford friend Jerry Chang and others on Saturday; getting paired with Atwal and Rod Pampling for the final round Sunday (Pampling also is one of Tiger's best friends on Tour) — almost all was rosy for the world's 51st ranked player.
Team events like the Ryder and Presidents Cup can hide a player's mistakes, but Woods may not need to be hidden. He was tied for ninth place after his fourth birdie Sunday, five behind 54-hole leader Briny Baird, until mis-hitting his tee shot and making bogey on the par-3 16th hole. His missed birdie putt from eight feet, five inches on the par-4 first hole, and his bogey on the par-4 second, where his drive sailed into a fairway bunker, ended his already remote chances of winning.
Fine-tuning his game under the tutelage of Sean Foley, Woods still makes small mistakes, the kind he avoided when he ruled the game for 12 years. But he is making enough birdies to win matches at Royal Melbourne, and Couples isn't the only one who should be pleased. Joe LaCava, the caddie who worked for Couples for years, and who was carrying the bag for Woods for the first time at CordeValle, raised eyebrows when he elected to leave Dustin Johnson for Woods last month. Several caddies said this week they would have stuck with Johnson, who is younger and who will probably make more money over the next decade-plus.
And yet others said they would have made the same move LaCava did. Woods plays fewer tournaments, which is easier on a caddie with a family, as LaCava has, and if Tiger ever re-establishes himself as the Tour's major domo, and wins five more majors to break Jack Nicklaus's record, LaCava's bold decision will be richly rewarded, financially and otherwise.
"It's a no-brainer," said Pete Bender, Rocco Mediate's caddie, who has worked for the biggest names in the game since 1968. "Tiger plays the perfect number of tournaments. Who wants to caddie 30 weeks a year?"
Couples, LaCava, Woods, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, the TV network executives who just signed a nine-year extension with the Tour — they all had reason to be happy about the once-great, ever-evolving and all-important golf game of Tiger Woods. Next stop, Australia and the Presidents Cup.