PALM HARBOR, Fla. — You'll forgive Tiger Woods if he thinks that his comeback is going fairly well thus far.
"I think I've come around very quickly," Woods said after his practice round.
Wednesday was the Valspar Championship pro-am, the prologue to the event, which is a prologue to Augusta but is also a living, breathing tournament of its own. Woods was back in action at 6:49 a.m. in a navy sweater and pants, working harder than perhaps he would've liked during his trip 'round Innisbrook's devilish Copperhead course. Woods was impressive for stretches and unimpressive for others but came away pleased, another reminder that for the first time, Woods's standards for himself may finally be more realistic than the expectations of the general public.
"I know people are saying that I've been, you know, erratic, a little inconsistent," Woods said. "But 10 rounds, it's not that many. I looked up some of my stats last night, I wanted to see how I ranked. I'm not even on the rankings. I haven't played enough rounds. OK. That's basically how my comeback has been so far this year. I haven't played a lot."
wrecked pic.twitter.com/X8EolVVTNl— Dylan Dethier (@dylan_dethier) March 7, 2018
It's a rational, reasoned take and revealing in two ways. First, Woods knows what people have been saying about him. And second, it's telling that he wants to see where he ranks. He's curious. That curiosity was a trait visible during Wednesday's pro-am, where he waited back to watch tee shots from the group behind him find and roll on the fairways. And as Woods hit extra practice putts on the 15th green, an impatient Gary Woodland hit up anyway, landing safely near the pin. Woods walked over to Woodland's ball, then flipped it up into his hand for a closer inspection.
"Hey Rob," he said to Rob McNamara, a confidante and executive with Woods's TGR brand. "he's playing that ball I was hitting on the range yesterday."
Woods also showed plenty of interest in his playing partners, executives and clients from Sherwin Williams, the parent company of Valspar (the paintcan tee markers were an easy reminder). Sherwin CFO Al Mistysyn was the star of the show; despite his 11 handicap, he hung dead even with Woods through six holes. "This guy's on fire," Woods said after one striped hybrid. "Nice shot, Al!"
Mistysyn seemed largely unfazed by the presence of Woods, with one exception: as he stared down a birdie putt on the 17th, Woods gave him a read from just a few feet behind him. The putt slid well left of the hole.
"The read was perfect," he said ruefully as he walked off the green. "I just hit it so far off."
For his part, Woods's form was a mixed bag. He was impressive off the tee, hitting 11 of 13 fairways, but couldn't seem to dial in his irons in the swirling breeze and hit just 6 of 18 greens in regulation. On the front nine, several shots that looked like they were on line barely even made it to front bunkers. It hardly seemed to matter: he was a perfect 5-for-5 on bunker saves, required just 24 putts and balanced two bogeys against two birdies.
Woods's final hole was his most impressive. Playing into a stiff breeze, he hit driver down the right-center and then played a piercing iron shot that skipped to a stop just three feet from the pin. The growing gallery in the bleachers even gave a roar of approval that was impassioned for a Wednesday.
"Hey, pin high!" Tiger said with mock excitement. "How 'bout that."
Thursday is supposed to be just as windy, and perhaps cooler, and Woods acknowledged it will take some solid ball-striking to keep up with the field — likely better than today. But Wednesday Woods ultimately tells us little about Thursday Woods, or Sunday Woods. He's different.
"I think that as an athlete you're always pushing yourself, right, and the best ones pushing themselves beyond their limits. That's what separates us," he said, comparing his approach to that of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. "I happened to be one of those guys who pushed my body and mind to accomplish the things I knew I could. I was able to do it."
Thursday, we'll learn a little bit more about what Woods is able to do going forward. To hear him tell it, he's right on track.