Tiger's comeback is in its infancy, but there are signs of change

Tiger Woods made the cut on Friday at the Players, a week after his poor performance at Quail Hollow.
Robert Beck/SI

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The English Tiger, Lee Westwood, has a one-stroke lead going into the weekend.

Tiger's "hair"-apparent, Rory McIlroy, couldn't conjure the magic he made in Charlotte and missed the cut (73-72).

The man who would-be Tiger, Phil Mickelson, is making pars and unlikely to take over the No. 1 ranking this week.

Tiger himself? Westwood's second-round 65 (12-under total) gave him a nine-shot lead over the game's rain-or-shine headliner. With a 71 on Friday to follow Thursday's 70, Woods achieved little more than the bare minimum through 36 holes of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. He made the cut.

"That's a pension point," Woods joked after his round, a reference to the PGA Tour's retirement program.

He is three-under overall, but more to the point he beat his 36-hole score at Quail Hollow last week by 12 shots.

Woods hit fairways (8 of 14), mostly with his trusty 3-wood. But he also missed fairways, even with his trusty 3-wood. He went wide right on 11 and 14, his tee ball on 14 straying so far it found a pond that guards the 12th green.

"I tried to stop [my swing]," Woods said.

In other words, the shot was so bad that he could smell it even before he hit it.

There was only one other big stinker: Woods hit his driver 50 yards right of the fairway on the par-4 first hole, his 10th of the day, and made bogey from the trees.

"I wasn't quite as sharp today as I was yesterday," he said. "I was just kind of outside the birdie-able range with my iron shots. I was just hitting the ball 20 feet [from the pin] every hole."

Mostly he played boring golf, hitting 14 of 18 greens and taking 31 putts. He offset two bogeys (1, 11) and a double (14) with five birdies, "plodded" his way around, painted the sky with a few gorgeous approach shots (5, 15), and tried to meet the eyes of supportive, vocal fans.

Not that there were many of them.

"What happened to the mobs of people following him? The bleachers are half-full," a 13-year tournament volunteer said as she stood on the first tee. "I haven't seen it like this, when he's played, since I've been coming here."

The comeback of Tiger Woods is still in its infancy. He avoided missing the cut in back-to-back starts for the first time in his career, and that's something.

Microphones picked up a Tiger F-bomb after his tee shot on 18 Thursday, but Woods was far more in control of his emotions Friday. He even seemed to break his nearly 14-year-long perma-scowl while chatting with playing partner Ian Poulter as they walked from the fourth green to the fifth tee. They were laughing about the implications of drinking two beers at a time in Friday's muggy, 87-degree heat.

His drive into the pine straw on one? Woods not only didn't tomahawk his club, he gave almost no reaction.

The chili-dipped third shot from the rough into the pot bunker on the par-5 ninth hole? Woods was a regular Boy Scout. He climbed into the sand, splashed out and made his four-footer to save par, his 71st stroke.

Afterward he even laughed about his worst shot, the tee ball on 14 that went swimming in the pond on 12.

"I've been there before," he said. No one could believe it. Tiger? Laughing about hitting into a lateral hazard that wasn't even on the hole he was supposed to be playing? And he was admitting having done it before in competition?

"No, no," he said. "I've been there in practice rounds."

Not even a reference to his nearly six-month-long sex scandal got Woods off track. A reporter asked him: "How can you play your best competitive golf, which is best done with an uncluttered mind, when you have so much going on outside the ropes?"

"You just go out there and play, go out there and play," Woods said. "If I was swinging the club a little bit better, it would be a little bit easier."

Then came the obligatory left knee question; Woods has had four operations on that knee. At 34, with another 15 good years in front of him, the knee is to Woods what the thumb is to Anthony Kim, or Megan Fox, for that matter: a potential deal-breaker.

"Knee's good," Woods said.

And that pesky right Achilles tendon is fine, too, he added, when asked about it.

"No, I started back running again," Woods said, for once volunteering more information than he had to.

Someone mentioned McIlroy's Saturday-Sunday scores of 66-62 at Quail Hollow.

"I'd take his scores on the weekend," Woods quipped, offering yet another smile. "That would work."

He wasn't expansive, but he wasn't withholding, either. The golf wasn't much to talk about. He'd beaten one playing partner, Poulter (71, one-under total), and lost to the other, Hunter Mahan (69, five under).

Woods was nowhere near the lead, but he stood at the dais outside player scoring and patiently waited for the questions to peter out.

"Two more questions," a Tour official said, but Woods answered three more.

Here he was giving reporters more than the minimum, when the minimum was all he'd been able to summon on the course. Hasn't it always been the other way around? Forget about the game, which is slowly coming back to Tiger Woods; that fact in itself was cause for optimism.

 

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