It wasn’t perfect, but Woods lives to play another day

December 6, 2011

SAN MARTIN, Calif. — Tiger Woods shot a second-round 68 at the Open on Friday to make his first 36-hole cut since the Masters. At one under for the tournament, he is within seven strokes of 36-hole leader Paul Casey (64) and has earned a reasonably early tee time Saturday, which may allow him to catch the Stanford-Colorado football game up the road in Palo Alto.

Woods made six birdies, including a four-foot tap-in after he nearly aced the par-3 16th, his seventh hole of the day, igniting a sonic boomlet from the crowd. He reached the par-5 ninth in two mighty blows and ended his round with a routine two-putt birdie.

That was the good news. The rest of the story, as it has been for a while, was a mixed bag. If there is a golf equivalent to on-base percentage, the baseball stat glorified by the book-turned-movie "Moneyball," it is fairways hit — the critical number from which all else flows, or doesn't flow. Woods hit seven of 14 fairways Thursday, and after a two-hour-and-20-minute fog delay Friday morning, he hit just six in round two, missing mostly left off the tee with driver, 3-wood and iron.

"It shows me, under the gun, where we need to keep working," said Sean Foley, Tiger's swing coach, as he waited for Woods to come to the scoring trailer.

Woods, now ranked 51st in the world, spiked his driver with one hand after his worst shot, a pull-hook off the first tee that never had a chance of finding the fairway. The club ricocheted wildly, well away from him.

Still, he mostly accomplished what he set out to do after his first-round 73; he began to piece his way back into the tournament. Woods, who missed the cut in his last start at the PGA Championship in August, has never missed two consecutive cuts as a professional, despite starting Friday in a precarious tie for 85th place. Hoping to get back in the hunt — he later said he'd envisioned a 64 — he began hitting balls just past 6:30 a.m., in the dark and fog, with several other players. With the fog delay, his tee time was bumped from 7:40 all the way back to 10.

He spent the long wait chatting with Pat Perez and Foley, shuttling between his spot on the driving range and his corner locker in the clubhouse. Perez joked that the thick fog reminded him of their junior golf days at Torrey Pines.

Although his score was a far cry from 64, and even further from the course-record 62 he shot at the Medalist last weekend, Woods's 68 wasn't all bad for a player whose balky left knee has limited him to just eight starts in 2011, or seven if you don't include his WD after just nine holes at the Players Championship in May.

"I've come off injuries in the past, but it's always been the same swing," Woods said. "It's pretty easy to come back to that. But when you're implementing changes, it's nice to have more competitive reps to fall back to, because as of right now, I haven't had that many competitive reps with Sean."

Was Friday a good day? A bad day? "Kind of half and half," Foley said.

One good part was Woods's run of three straight birdies. He drove into the left rough on the long, par-4 14th, but muscled his second shot onto the front of the green and made a 23-foot bomb for birdie. He missed left again off the tee on the par-5 15th hole, forcing him to lay up from a fairway bunker, but stuck his third to within nine feet and made his second straight birdie. Woods snuck in a sandwich on his walk to the par-3 16th tee, where after some discussion with his new caddie, Joe LaCava, he flushed his ball to within four feet for a third straight birdie.

Fans, pundits, caddies and even Tour pros have been waiting for Woods to re-emerge for close to two years now, and then, briefly, there he was.

"My dad bought me the VHS tape of the 1997 Masters," said Bud Cauley (66), who at seven under was a shot off the lead. "I've watched that a few times."

But a persistent left miss is a worrisome thing, and Woods knows it. He hit iron for safety on the driveable, par-4 17th hole yet still found the left rough — perhaps the most glaring sign that he's still a work in progress.

"I get into my old posture," he said. "And the way I'm rotating through the ball now, that ball is going to go left. So I just need to get better posture, and when I do, I can hit a fade or a draw. I just get into these lulls where I go back to my old comfort, especially out here when I'm in a tournament mode and got to hit shots."

The left miss finally hurt him on 18, where his 3-wood off the tee sailed into the creek that bisects the fairway. Woods berated himself and cursed loudly, and after a five-minute search he took a penalty drop. He got up and down from just off the green to save bogey, but, clearly rattled, he snap-hooked his drive on one and bogeyed again. So goes the old golf truism attributed to Jack Nicklaus: "It takes hundreds of good golf shots to gain confidence, but only one to lose it."

"I made a couple mistakes there at 18 and one," Woods said, "but overall I'm still within seven shots of [the lead] right now."

On Thursday, Woods faulted his putting, but he added two strips of lead tape to help him get the ball to the hole Friday. He also tweaked his posture. But with his putting mostly fixed, it was his faulty posture over full shots that he claimed contributed to the left misses.

What it all means, if anything, remains to be seen.