PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The putt was nine feet, one inch in length, and Tiger Woods had seen tougher. But if there is a roadmap back to golfing respectability, it leads through a complicated maze of memories — of tests faced and tests passed. He knew he needed to make the putt to make the cut.
Woods, of course, did exactly that. His birdie at the par-5 ninth hole, his last of the day Friday, left him with a 71 to get back to even par, good enough to advance to the weekend at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. He gave a quick fist pump and snatched the ball out of the cup.
“Obviously I need tournament golf,” said Woods, a two-time winner of this event who goes into the weekend eight strokes behind surprise co-leaders Kevin Na (69) and Jerry Kelly (65). “My game is finally at a point where I can play tournament golf on a consistent basis. That wasn’t the case early in the year.”
Woods is 39, and he is either on his way out of the game or on his way back to the elite, each shot moving him irrevocably one way or the other. He is at the end of his second sleeve of coaches, having gone from Rudy Duran to John Anselmo (as a kid) to Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, Sean Foley and now — his latest instructor — Chris Como (as an adult).
Sometimes, like during his round of 71 Friday, Woods doesn’t look that far off. He hit nine of 14 fairways. But he also hit only 10 greens in regulation and faulted his erratic iron play after the round.
“I haven’t gotten anything out of my rounds, that’s the thing,” he said. “I should be a few under par each day, and I’m just not capitalizing on my opportunities, and I need to start doing that. I’ve given myself plenty of looks, really green-light iron shots. I’m just not stuffing them in there.”
With Woods, it’s always something. He struggled off the tee in the first round here Thursday and hit just two fairways in the last round of the Masters last month. At the start of this season, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the Farmers Insurance Open, his short game was broken.
But while you might think he would spend Friday afternoon beating balls on the TPC Sawgrass range — perhaps next to 36-hole leader Na, who set up camp on the range to work on some things even after rounds of 67-69 — Woods met his media obligations and had lunch, and shortly after that his reserved parking place was absent one white Lexus SUV courtesy car.
Had he gone elsewhere to practice? Did he decide he had had enough golf for one day? Did he plan to put in some work here Saturday morning?
As usual with Woods, we were left guessing.
Since the start of this season Woods has dropped from 32nd to 125th in the World Ranking. He no longer qualifies for the Tour’s elite World Golf Championship events, like last week’s Cadillac-Match Play in San Francisco, and at this rate he will miss the season-ending FedEx Cup for the second year in a row. He hasn’t had many successes, even modest ones.
Even after you’ve won 14 majors and earned countless fat stacks, the game gets in your head. Na spoke Friday of the two things he’s most famous for: making a 16 at the 2011 Valero Texas Open, and having the full-swing yips at the 2012 Players. Jonas Blixt hooked his tee shot into the water at the 18th hole and threw his club in after it. Brooks Koepka, who made back-to-back quadruple bogeys Thursday, rebounded with a 67 Friday only to miss the cut by one. Phil Mickelson shot 76 to go home early for the third straight year.
“I was thinking to myself as I was walking around,” Mickelson said, “I can’t believe I’ve actually won here.”
Woods has made 11 birdies over two days while limiting his mistakes to bogeys and, on Thursday, two doubles. That may not sound like much, but it’s something. If he was the same Woods who shot a second-round 82 in Phoenix earlier this year, he would have resembled not the guy we’ve seen for 36 holes but something closer to Koepka on the 17th and 18th holes Thursday, or Aaron Baddeley making an 8 on the par-3 17th Friday. As Adam Scott (3 under, five back) so aptly put it after shooting a second-round 69 alongside Woods, “It’s very hard to recover from the water.”
Does Woods still think he can win?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Anyone who makes the cut certainly has a chance on this golf course. And if you put together a good round, you never know what could happen at the end.”
Whether he can or can’t win is immaterial. What matters is that when Woods faced his latest big test Friday, at the par-5 ninth, he choked down on a pitching wedge to hit a soft cut 103 yards into the wind to inside 10 feet. What matters is he made the putt and pumped his fist like old times.
Small successes lead to medium, medium to big, and here was a fresh success for the memory bank, something to steady Woods when he faces bigger moments still at the Memorial, the U.S. Open and the British. If the latest Woods comeback is to pan out, he’ll have to keep building from here.