GAINESVILLE, Va. -- If you’re threatening to win your own tournament, does that make you a lousy host?
While you ponder that conundrum, consider that Tiger Woods was the most comfortable he’s looked on the golf course in a long, long time on Friday. He made six birdies and one bogey, twirled the club a lot after his shots (his trademark happy move) and posted a 5-under 66 to move into contention at the Quicken Loans National.
Comfortable? Hey, he actually smiled. A small step for a man, a giant leap for a struggling Tiger.
You can’t measure relief, but Woods laughed off a pop-up he hit off the tee on the 14th hole and chuckled about an accidental birdie he made near the end of the round when he sank an ocean liner of a putt.
This may be more important than how his swing looked or how many putts he made or where he is on the leaderboard: Tiger, as of today, is having fun on the course again.
And as a competitor, he’s thinking about what he needs to do. The Bridgestone Invitational will be played next week at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. That event has been like an annuity to Woods, who has won there eight times. Woods currently stands 266th in the Official World Golf Rankings. He won’t be in the field for that World Golf Championship, glaring evidence of how far he’s fallen, unless he wins the Quicken Loans National.
While most golf observers are debating where his game is right now, Woods seems to be focusing on getting back to Akron, getting back to the FedEx Cup, getting back to his old elite level.
Asked about his upcoming schedule, he said, “Well, I'm playing the PGA Championships in a couple weeks. Hopefully I can play next week at Bridgestone if everything goes well this week, and then we'll see about Wyndham after that. Hopefully, I'll be in the playoffs and we'll move from there.”
In other words, if Woods doesn’t move up enough on the FedEx Cup points list, he might consider playing the Wyndham Championship, the last event before the FedEx Cup series begins. A win this week would take care of that, too.
Woods holed some putts of length on Friday, none more dramatic than at the par-5 eighth, his 17th hole of the day. He pushed his drive into the right rough, on a downslope, then laid up into a fairway bunker still 57 yards short of the pin. His bunker shot barely crawled onto the green. Then Woods pounded home a bending 35-footer for birdie and punctuated the moment with an animated fist pump like Tiger of old.
At that moment, Woods moved into a tie for second place, one shot behind Ollie Schniederjans, the amateur who dazzled at the British Open and promptly turned pro. Schniederjans (69) backed up to 7-under later in his round as Memorial champion David Lingmerth got in at nine under in the morning wave of players, one ahead of Tiger. Later in the day, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa birdied his final three holes to get to 11 under, good enough for a 1-shot lead over Rickie Fowler (65) and Kevin Chappell (68).
The way Woods looked Friday -- rock solid on all but one or two shots -- he could be a factor. Tiger Woods in contention on the weekend? That’s something we haven’t seen lately, and after his agonizing performances this year it’s nothing short of big news.
“It doesn't feel unusual,” Woods said. “I was in this spot at Augusta going into Sunday. So, it's been a long time since April. I'm in a good spot. I'm looking forward to the weekend. I'm looking forward to getting after it.”
This is easily the best he’s played since the Masters in April, when he finished 17th, and he looked more confident and in control Friday than at any time this year.
When he finished the storm-delayed first round Thursday evening, Woods said he was looking forward to playing early on Friday on smooth greens.
“Hopefully, I can go out there and post a low one,” he said.
That’s exactly what he did.
Erase Tiger’s shaky start Thursday -- bogeys on the three of the first holes -- and he’d been creating an even bigger stir in the golfing world.
Conditions were nicer Friday but not necessarily easier. It was still very warm and sunny at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, but Thursday’s sweltering humidity was replaced by drier air and an intermittent light breeze.
Woods actually played better than his score indicated, letting some birdie chances slip past.
He two-putted for par from just off the fringe at the 10th hole then lag-putted from 50 feet for another par at the 11th.
Tiger’s 20-footer for birdie lipped out at No. 12, and he missed a 15-footer for birdie at the 13th. An awful drive at the 14th led to a three-putt bogey from 60 feet, but he bounced back by sticking his approach shot to three feet at the 15th. Woods said that popped-up tee ball was what jump-started his round.
“That great tee shot I hit on 14, a big high draw that went about 90 yards,” he said with a laugh. Actually, it went 160 yards. It just probably felt like 90. “I shouldn’t have made bogey there. I hit it on the green and three-putted. That got me a little fired up, got me a little more focused and I really hit it good from there on.”
His short putting, which has been sketchy at times, was superb for a second straight day. He aggressively rolled birdie putts past the cup on the next two holes but easily sank the return putts for pars.
“I had four lip-outs on my front nine, so I wasn’t hitting bad putts, they just weren’t going in,” he said. “I made my share on the back, especially that bomb on 8. That was a bit lucky but I’ll take it.
“I felt very good. I putted aggressively. I felt comfortable with my strokes. A couple times, I didn’t mean to hit it four or five feet by but they rolled out a little more than I thought.”
At 18 he sank a curling 10-footer for birdie to shoot 34 on the back.
Tiger began to make his move after the turn. He dropped another approach shot inside four feet for birdie at the first hole. He missed a nine-foot birdie putt at the third hole then casually waved his putter as he drained a 20-footer for birdie at the fourth.
He reached the par-5 fifth hole in two with a pretty good hybrid shot from the right rough. Facing a long putt to a front pin, he left his first try seven feet short but he made that for birdie.
Two good chances slid past on the next two holes. He missed a 10-footer at the sixth, and at the seventh his 12-footer wandered slightly right of the hole, surprising him as he held out his right arm in disbelief.
Then came the eighth and the monster birdie putt. Woods parred the par-3 ninth for 32 on the front and 66 on the round.
Tiger even sounded more like the old Tiger on Friday.
“I feel like I can still compete and win,” Woods said. “I won five times a year and a half ago. I think that's a pretty good number. It’s not that long ago that I was Player of the Year. I know my ranking is awful, but I was away from the game for a long period of time plus playing poorly compounded it. I just need to keep playing and eventually I'll climb back.
“The longer you play, you're going to have periods like this. Some guys' careers are 48, 50 years long. I don't think they all played well each and every year for 48, 50 years. This is my 20th year on Tour. I've had spells where I played great and other spells where I played awful. It's just the nature of our sport.”