Tiger Woods is not the man to beat at the Memorial, but don't count him out yet

Tiger Woods is not the man to beat at the Memorial, but don’t count him out yet

Tiger Woods has been struggling on the greens this week.
Chris Condon/PGA TOUR/Getty Images

DUBLIN, Ohio—It’s a brave new world, not that you need a reminder.

In the previous world order, this Memorial Tournament would’ve been over as soon as Tiger Woods tied for the lead after draining a long birdie putt on the opening hole Saturday afternoon at Muirfield Village. He then took the solo lead minutes later when second-round leader Rory Sabbatini made bogey.

In that world, you knew it and Tiger knew it, the Memorial Tournament would’ve been gift-wrapped and neatly tied with a bow for Tiger’s trophy room. He would’ve piled on a few birdies and eagles and pulled away, while the other players on the board, intimidated by his presence, would have melted like April snow.

It would’ve been win No. 73, moving him into a tie with tournament host Jack Nicklaus on the all-time victory list. It would’ve been a given because, we all knew, Tiger never missed a chance for another milestone.

In the new post-Tiger world, featuring the fourth iteration of Tiger, the Memorial was not over. It isn’t still with 18 holes to play.

Woods keeps saying he’s close. He is, and getting closer to playing better than at any time since returning from The Scandal. He played solid but wasn’t able to convert much on the greens. Woods sank a 20-footer for birdie on that first hole. The next longest putt he holed all day? Four-and-a-half feet. Woods finished with a one-over 73.

Four bogeys on the back nine, uncharacteristic of the original Tiger, meant that going into Sunday’s final round, the Memorial is not Tiger’s tournament to lose. Not even close. This Memorial is still wide open.

Spencer Levin leads by one shot over Rory Sabbatini, now known as The Other Rory even after McIlroy missed the cut. The colorful Rickie Fowler sprang into third place, three shots back. Woods is four back.

Levin holed out from off the green twice and holed some amazing putts for his three-under 69. Sabbatini, the outspoken South African, has come out of a recent slump with some impressively good play.

Nobody in golf is playing more consistently right now, week in and week out, than cover boy Fowler. He’s not in the lead, but he’s the hottest player on the board. Maybe that makes him the man to beat. Also, he’s a very good player in the wind who’s capable of a low ball flight, which he proved during his abbreviated career at windswept Oklahoma State University.

“I’ve been swinging really well,” Fowler said. “I’m very confident with my game and where I’m at mentally. So I’ll go out tomorrow and have some fun.”

Woods is not the man to beat Sunday based on his recent play. He has played well enough to be much further under par than he is—four under. Because of gusty winds and a few slightly off-line tee balls, he has now laid up on eight of the last nine par-5 holes he has played. You’ve got to take advantage of the par 5s at Muirfield Village. Woods birdied only one Friday and another Saturday. He was five under on the par 5s through 54 holes, one over on the rest of the course.

“A couple of the par 5s are just not the right wind for me,” he explained. “The 11th is not the right wind. I like to cut the ball and (with wind) in off the left, I’ve got to throw it out over that creek. And then 15 today—geez, that thing is playing long. Some of the shorter guys won’t be able to carry the creek on the left if they pull it. I haven’t ever seen it play that long. But it is important to get it down there and give yourself a run at some of these par 5s because there are very few birdie holes out there.”

Woods was almost buoyant over his superb ballstriking in the second round. Saturday, after dealing with gusting winds, he was frustrated.

“I feel really good the way I’m hitting the ball,” Woods said. “This is the way I know I’m capable of hitting the ball. The beauty of it is, I’ve been missing in the correct spots and that’s when I know I have control of my game. At least I miss on the correct sides.”

The big question now is, What will Tiger do next? Will he put up some kind of baroque number like that final-round 62 he posted in the Honda Classic that put a bit of a scare into Rory McIlroy? Will he contend? Will he make a run at the leaders?

At this stage in his career, Woods is something he’s never been before—unpredictable.

Since his win at Bay Hill in March, his play has been spotty. He tied for 40th at the Masters and the Players, sandwiched around a missed cut in Charlotte. His swing and his demeanor look much better than they did even a few weeks ago.

“I certainly shot the highest score I could have shot today, considering the way I hit it,” Woods said. “But I’m only four back.”

Woods isn’t going to make a run if he doesn’t drop some putts in Sunday’s final round. Through 54 holes, he ranked 58th in the tour’s putting stat—strokes gained by putting. Never mind how that number is determined—it’s esoteric—but it effectively means that Woods is putting better than only 13 other players among the 71 who made the cut.

That’s not a blueprint on how to win a tournament.

But the good news for Woods is he is tied for first in greens in regulation.

“A lot of guys are still in this ballgame,” Woods said. “It’ll be an exciting day tomorrow.”

The Tiger of old would have a lot of players on the leaderboard looking over their shoulders. This isn’t the Tiger of old. He may win, he may not. He may make a charge, he may not. It’s progress for him just to be in this position, slow progress. This is a brave new world. You know it, we know it, Rickie Fowler knows it. And as much as anyone, Tiger knows it, too.