Tiger was erratic Sunday at Firestone, but there were positive signs this week

Tiger was erratic Sunday at Firestone, but there were positive signs this week

Tiger Woods shot an even-par 70 on Sunday at Firestone.
Fred Vuich/SI

AKRON, Ohio — Tiger Woods took a step back Sunday in the Bridgestone Invitational’s final round.

He struggled with his tee shots, hitting only one fairway on the back nine, and badly sprayed a few. His iron play wasn’t as good as earlier in the week. He switched to a different putter — a Nike model instead of his familiar Scotty Cameron. And he hit some pitches and bunker shots that were, by his old standards, not very good.

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Given all that he’s gone through since his last tournament appearance, a mere nine holes at The Players in May, give him a solid C-plus.

“I had it in spurts this week,” Woods said. “I’d hit it really well, then I’d lose it and then get it back. Today was a good example. I hit it well starting out, then completely lost it there, and tried to piece it back together at the end.”

“I’m absolutely encouraged.”

Woods got off to a good start in the final round with birdies at the second and fifth holes. He hit it to three-and-a-half feet for birdie at the par-3 fifth and looked as if he might use that momentum to go low.

Then the sixth hole jumped up and bit him again. He doubled it, just like he did on Friday. He drove into the left trees, advanced to the greenside bunker and semi-fluffed that shot. He chipped out of the rough to nine feet and missed the putt.

For a guy who apparently had a lot of time when he could do nothing but chip and putt, his short game was very, very rusty. At one point during his prime, his scrambling ability was second to none, perhaps in the history of the game.

Woods confirmed that he will not play the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro the week after the PGA Championship, no matter what his standing is. He came to Firestone ranked 135th on the FedEx Cup points list — only the top 125 make the first round of the playoffs. Woods is likely to fall further down the list due to this week’s opposite-field event, the Reno-Tahoe Open. To make the playoffs, he’ll need a big finish next week at Atlanta Athletic Club, where he finished 29th in the 2001 PGA.

Woods basically said that his game feels good, he just needs more at-bats. But he added that he has a family obligation the week of Greensboro and will be unable to play.

At times in Akron, Woods showed flashes of brilliance. The Tiger-of-old moment of the week came Thursday at the par-5 16th, when he theatrically sliced his shot back into the fairway, played a wedge shot long and then sank a 30-foot putt for birdie. After that second shot, the crowd roared in delight at his exaggerated follow-through. Woods shot 68 but didn’t break par again in the last three rounds.

On Sunday, he had to birdie 15, 16 and 17 just to get back to even par for the round.

“I’m fresh, I haven’t played,” he said. “I was playing just to figure out how to score because I haven’t been forced to score. Playing money games at home with my buddies is not quite the same.”

Woods said he’s still having difficulty transitioning to new swing thoughts after switching teachers, from Hank Haney to Sean Foley. The change from Haney, who had Woods swinging on a somewhat flatter plane, to Foley has been significant.

“It’s very different, but then again it’s also very similar to what I was swinging like when I was a kid,” Tiger said of Foley’s method. “Some of these patterns are what I used to feel as a kid, which was great, but I’m getting there differently.”

Woods followed his opening 68 with 71, 72 and 70 for a one-over total. His stats weren’t pretty. He hit 22 of 56 fairways, only 39 percent, but Firestone South’s fairways are among the narrowest on the PGA Tour. Woods hit 47 of 72 greens in regulation (65 percent) and was one-of-six on sand saves, which is flat-out poor. He had 117 putts, not a terrific number considering he missed 25 of 72 greens and should’ve one-putted for par saves quite a few times.

Putting was the biggest red flag. Yes, he made a few coming in Sunday, but after looking terrific in the first round, he looked out of sorts Friday and Saturday and most of Sunday. He said he found his stroke near the end, but changing putters for Sunday’s round is an alarming sign.

Asked if he’d use the Nike putter in Thursday’s first round at the PGA, Woods said, “It was [the one] today. I don’t know about Thursday.”

He repeated what he’d said all week about his knee feeling great, and he did appear to be healthy. He walked without a hitch and didn’t have any problems squatting to read putts or bending over to mark his ball.

That’s a good sign, but it was a very mixed bag for Woods this week.

“I’ve just got to keep playing,” Woods said. “I’m going to worry about these three days and apply it accordingly and be ready come Thursday.”

When Woods tees off at 8:35 a.m. Thursday at the PGA Championship with Davis Love and Padraig Harrington, it will be the start of the second chapter of his latest comeback saga. With more, undoubtedly, to come.