PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — It officially feels like golf season now. Tiger Woods showed up with some game and kinda-sorta finally resembled Tiger Woods.
There were seven birdies, a handful of good chances that got away and an early eye-catching 65 that vaulted him up the Honda Classic leaderboard. The vaulting part wasn’t hard — he was tied for last place among those players who made the cut and was in the second group off the tee at 7:38 Saturday morning.
Woods was all the way up to ninth place at five under par by the time he finished in three-and-a-half hours at 11:08 but with sunny conditions and not much wind, his position didn’t seem likely to hold. Rory McIlroy, the second-round leader at 11 under, wasn’t scheduled to tee off until 1:35 p.m.
The glitzy show was well-timed. It’s the first day of March and the Masters Tournament is lurking a scant six weeks away. Tiger, it was about time. Woods didn’t say anything that dramatic after his round, of course, but he was pleased by the showing and the progress he’s made each day at PGA National’s Champion Course.
“Today was a positive day,” he said. “I hit the ball well and made some putts and got myself back in the hunt.”
More important, he made it clear that his game is coming together.
The best sign was during Friday’s second round where he hit only one green in regulation on the back nine but got up-and-down for pars like the magical Tiger of old, including one sweet pitch-in for birdie at the 13th. Attention Masters-watchers, Tiger’s short game is sharp. He’s saved pars seven times in nine tries out of the bunkers and his astute scrambling shrank his putts total to 25 and 23 the last two days, respectively.
The poor iron play that hobbled him the first two rounds — and also most of this year — was remarkably improved Saturday. After hitting only 20 of 36 greens in regulation the first two rounds, Woods hit 12 in the third round, missing a couple on the fringe. He also hit some approach shots close, which you may have deduced from the fact that he piled up seven birdies.
“I felt a lot better today,” Tiger said. “I didn’t hit the ball very well yesterday, just kind of grinded it out. Today I struck the ball well and made some putts. I had a good range session this morning and came out today and hit it to three feet on the very first hole but it spun back to about 15 feet and I made that.”
His putting looked better than average, too. He missed some short-ish ones the first day, including one two-footer that he feebly waved at. Saturday, he rolled them in with authority, starting with that putt on the opening hole.
Woods was hardly perfect on the greens, and he left with the sense that while a 65 was nice, it could’ve been better and, frankly, he needed it to be better if he was going to catch McIlroy after Rory’s 63-66 opening.
There were two putts he’d like to have back. He missed a four-and-a-half footer for birdie on the par-5 third hole and a four-footer to save par after he went long over the fourth green. Give him those and he’s staring at 63.
Woods rolled in a 37-foot birdie putt at the fifth, however, and a 25-footer at the seventh. His putting’s off? He drained a clutch 15-foot putt to save par at the eighth but bogeyed the ninth, missing from ten feet.
He birdied the next two holes, holing an eight-footer and chipping in from off the 11th green, then added two more birdies at 14 and 15 from 12 and 6 feet, respectively. He had birdie chances from 15 to 20 feet on each of the final three holes but couldn’t drop any. So it was a fairly easy 65.
“I had a good feel today,” Woods said. “I missed my share of putts, too. The last couple holes, it would have been nice to get one of those.”
The only thing holding Woods back now is his tee shots. The Honda Classic is fond of growing some pretty grabby rough, and the winner is usually someone who hits fairways. Tiger isn’t doing that. He hit eight the first round and only six in the third round.
Other than that, he looks like a player who’s finally shaken off the rust and figured a few things out. Woods dismissed his recent dismal showings as the nature of golf, but some observers were beginning to wonder.
He missed the 54-hole cut at Torrey Pines, where his eight titles include a famous U.S. Open, and tied for 80th. He finished 41st in Dubai, where he has won twice.
“I’ve gone through periods like that where it’s tough,” Woods said. “I’ve had situations where it just seems like no matter what you do, nothing goes your way. You can’t get the feel of your swing, you can’t get the putter going, the short game. It’s just one thing after another. It’s like that week after week, round after round, and the next thing you know, a couple of months and half the season has gone by. Look at my career, it’s gone in waves like that.
“It’s going to turn around. We are all going to have hot spells and cold spells. You try to ride those hot spells as long as you can and keep those cold spells as short as you can.”
Tiger had his game going in the right direction here, finally. One round doesn’t constitute a turnaround, obviously, but he appears to be doing what spring is supposed to be doing in March — warming up.
Make a note. Augusta is closer than you think. So is Tiger.