As he has entered his mid-30s, Tiger Woods has increasingly embraced the role of elder statesman, at least in his press conference rhetoric. When talking about the whippersnappers on Tour, he favors the term “a different gear,” a nod to his advancing age and battle-scarred body. The day before the Deutsche Bank Championship began, Woods was waxing nostalgic about when he used to be a considered a long hitter. In his mind, those days are long gone.
“It's a totally different game now,” he said. “You know, the bigger hitters can hit the ball 320 in the air. I don't really have that. I can carry it 300, but that's a different gear."
This year, Woods, 36, has been criticized for his conservative play at the majors, when he turned into the golfing equivalent of a blue-haired old lady driving 10 miles below the speed limit in the left lane, blinker flashing. Against this backdrop Woods’s spectacular first-round 64 at the Deutsche Bank Championship becomes all the more meaningful.
Woods has shot 64 or lower 43 times on the PGA Tour, but before Friday, the last time he opened with a 64 or better was at the 2009 AT&T National. The six consecutive birdies he made on Friday at the TPC of Boston was one shy of the longest streak of his career. Woods, it appears, still has a different gear. After the round he tried to describe how he felt during his birdie binge: “It feels easy. I’m making putts, hitting shots I wanted to…” His voice trailed off dreamily.
Woods began his early morning round on the 10th hole, welcomed by smooth, soft greens. He has long enjoyed good mojo at the TPC Boston, shooting 63 in 2006 and 2009. He got off to a good start with a birdie at the 11th hole, then saved par on 12 with a gorgeous flop shot from deep greenside rough. At 13 his 19-foot birdie putt was so pure he chased it into the hole. Four consecutive pars followed, then at the par-5 18th Woods laid up with a three-wood but still reached the green with a six-iron. His 42-foot eagle putt caught a lot of the hole but wouldn’t drop, leaving a tap-in birdie. He was three under and just getting going. On each of the next three holes, he poured in a midlength birdie putt. This year Woods has not been efficient at cleaning up these kind of birdie chances, ranking 102nd on Tour on putts from 15 to 20 feet.
On the 4th hole, a drivable par-4 of 280 yards, Woods summoned some vintage magic. An errant drive left him with a shot over a gaping bunker to a devilish green that plunged away from him. He later estimated he had a landing area of “maybe a foot and a half, max.” His pitch was just about perfect. “I had to play an all-out shot to try to keep [my ball] on the green,” Woods said. “I went for it and it came off.” He brushed in the ensuing five-footer for a fifth straight birdie.
On the par-4 5th Woods faced an approach from 156 yards. During a round in which he would hit 16 greens in regulation, his rhythm with the short irons was particularly good, and he stuffed this shot to three feet for yet another birdie, touching off a 59 watch on Twitter. Alas, on the next hole Woods misread a short birdie attempt, and that jolted him out of the zone. He had to scramble for par on the par-5 7th after a wild tee shot, and on his final hole a misplayed chip led to bogey.
Woods took only 28 putts , but he was most pleased with his distance control in windy conditions. “It was really tricky out there—we didn’t know if it was downwind or into the wind. It was tough, it was swirling.”
Though Woods has a Tour-best three victories this season, he has had a discouraging summer, including a final-round 76 last week at Bethpage, a course he overpowered at the 2002 U.S. Open, one of the defining triumphs of his youth. Woods plays a slightly different game now, but as he proved on Friday at the Deutsche Bank, his best golf is still pretty damn good.