Tiger Woods has forgotten more about golf than I’ll ever know about it, so he’s earned the benefit of the doubt on matters relating to his game.
On Thursday at the WGC-CA Championship, after a blah round where he made just 45 feet of putts, Woods smiled and laughed despite a 71 that left him six shots off the lead of Phil Mickelson and a handful of others.
“I just need to get a little sharper,” Woods said, a variation on the well-worn statement “I’m close” that he likes to throw around during comebacks and swing changes.
Thing is, I believe him.
Woods’s one-under 71 was about the worst score he could have shot on a good day for scoring at Doral. His putts hit the edges of holes or slid past. A number of his drives crept off the fairway and settled into the rough. He was, in fact, close.
In the brief periods when Woods has been off kilter, a storm of victories has usually followed. “Close” becomes locked in. The rest of the field plays catch-up.
Woods did it after winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, going through a swing change and a major-championship drought and following with dominance from 1999-2002. When Woods teamed up with swing coach Hank Haney in 2004 — Woods’s second straight year without a major — he launched into another run of sterling play, highlighted by the 2005 Masters and British Open.
Of course, there are more unknowns now, what with major surgery and more than eight months off and endless questions about whether the post-surgery Tiger can get back to the pre-surgery Tiger.
Woods doesn’t look at it that way. He isn’t trying to get back to the pre-surgery Tiger any more than he is trying to get back to the Tiger that won the Masters by a dozen shots or the U.S. Open on one leg.
Woods has always looked forward more than backward. He just wants to make the 2009 Tiger the best he can be.
“I hit the ball well all day today,” said Woods, whose biggest miscue of the day was a water ball on the par-3 fourth, where he made bogey.
Beyond rust, Woods’s biggest issue may be that his sport has not remained stagnant in his absence. Padraig Harrington, who won a major with Woods in the field, won two more without him. Mickelson, who won three majors with Woods in the field, may finally be finding his own form after an uninspired end to 2008. (He chipped in three times Thursday, including birdies on No. 17 and No. 18, and needed just 20 putts.)
It doesn’t stop there. Camilo Villegas and Nick Watney are winners now, and so is Anthony Kim. Rory McIlroy has won overseas, Dustin Johnson back east and out west.
In less than a year, the depth in the men’s game has grown, led by twentysomethings and teenagers who have tasted victory and ducked the scars that Woods has inflicted on a generation.
If anything, the new threats to Woods’s perch will only heighten his resolve, if that is even possible. He is six shots out of the lead with 54 holes to play on a golf course he knows and loves like few others. The wins will come, if not this week then soon.
Tiger says he’s close. That usually means trouble for everyone else.