DUBLIN, Ohio — Tiger Woods shot two-under 70 at the Memorial Tournament, which means two things:
1. He is back.
2. Oh, shut up. One round does not mean he is back.
I'm glad we all agree. But forget the score for a moment. This looked like … well, it did not remind me of the best rounds of his career. It reminded me of what his worst rounds used to look like. Remember? He would miss a few putts (he lipped out a birdie putt on his first hole and missed a birdie putt by a hair on his second), and wouldn't do anything spectacular, and poof: two-under, in contention. And you just knew if he turned it on, the rest of the field would have to tackle him to get on television on Sunday.
His missed tee shots Thursday, for the most part, were still in the fairway. His missed approaches were pin high. He played like he could have shot 67. He has had his moments before, like his five-shot victory at Bay Hill earlier this year, but …
"What I'm seeing right now is far better than what I saw at Bay Hill."
Those are the words of Sean Foley, Tiger's swing instructor, in a brief conversation Thursday. Take that as you will. Either Foley knows better than most (because he works with Tiger) or he will put a happy backspin on how Tiger is playing (because he works with Tiger). But his explanation fit with what Tiger did on the course.
"I really liked how he hit it that week (at Bay Hill), he was No. 1 in driving and greens in regulation," Foley said. "But this is softer. There is more flow to this. Distance control is excellent. All those things."
Here comes Tiger Woods, people. I know that doesn't fit with the popular narrative. But he is playing a lot better than people realize. He is second on tour in total driving, 18th on the money list, fifth in scoring average. In the Tour's all-around ranking, which combines eight other stats, he ranks sixth. If LeBron James suddenly dropped to being the sixth-best basketball player in the NBA, would we rip him? OK, never mind.
Woods probably has all sorts of mechanical reasons for why played well Thursday. Me, I'm looking for a feeling.
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Watching Tiger Woods in person has always been a surreal experience, because no matter how close you stood, you watched him from a distance. He would walk from the practice green to the first tee, through a throng of fans telling him he was the man and should go get 'em (because that's what the man does, he goes and gets 'em) … and he wouldn't acknowledge a single one. He would sink a birdie putt and ignore the roar. He had his fist-pumping moments, of course, but even those were him celebrating alone, in front of us. He did not interact with the gallery at all.
Theoretically, this should have muted the experience. Instead, it amplified it. It almost felt like we were seeing something we weren't supposed to see, like we were sitting behind Monet, watching him paint water lilies without him knowing we were there.
In the last few years, though, that distance has created a different effect. Woods has played so poorly that his golf doesn't sustain us; we want to know why he has struggled, and what's going on his head. And still, he gives us nothing.
Tiger is under constant scrutiny, but most of our observations are superficial. There is Tiger, on the 12th hole, laughing with Fred Couples. Wouldn't the old Tiger have been more focused? There is Tiger, sniffling and sorting audibly, burying his face in a towel. Is he sick? (Nope: allergies.)
There is Tiger on the driving range afterward, still laughing with Couples, goofing around, listening to Foley's instruction, drinking diet Coke and then lingering to talk to Rory McIlroy. Is he a man at ease? Or just a golfer on the driving range on a perfect May afternoon?
When he curses (I did hear one Thursday), we think he is frustrated or unhappy. But he once, in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, unleashed some serious profanity on national television after an errant drive. He won that Open by 15 strokes. Tiger Woods has been using naughty words on the golf course for a long time. That tells us nothing.
We see so many of the same mannerisms and emotions from Tiger that we always saw. We just see them differently. As I walked the grounds at Muirfield Village, I felt like there was something missing, something impossible to see or grasp.
I think when we watch Tiger Woods, we have lost the sense that we're watching something special. But he can't try to create magic. He can only concentrate on that little white ball.
Tiger Woods may or may not be the best player in history. But surely, he has changed his swing more than any other player in the conversation. It is easy to look at him now and ask, as many have: Why doesn't he just go back to one of the swings that won majors for him before?
Tiger loathes talking about his swing, and Foley declined to provide any insight into it. But if you watch Tiger now, you can see that the way he moves the lower half of his body does not put as much stress on his knees as most swings. This is surely by design. It may even be why Woods chose Foley in the first place, though that is just my speculation. Foley first got on the PGA Tour because Stephen Ames had bulging discs in his back, and Foley used to give seminars to chiropractors about the effects of the golf swing on the body.
Tiger has talked about getting to the point where he doesn't think about his swing — he just swings. He certainly seems to be getting closer to that. And when he gets there, that is when we'll find out what Tiger has left.
It's easy to think of Tiger's swing as a reflection of who is working with him — that he went from a Butch Harmon swing to a Hank Haney swing to a Sean Foley swing. But Foley is the first to say he is not some all-knowing swing guru who knows Tiger Woods better than Tiger knows himself.
"We're not trying to over-coach or take the artist out of the player," Foley said.
We want to see the artist again. Don't we? And this is where we are just like Tiger. He has to deal with the mechanics of getting the ball to do what it used to do — even though he is doing it differently. The ball doesn't know what a backswing looks like.
"The principles of impact can't be argued," Foley said. "When a flat surface hits a sphere, this is what occurs 100 times out of 100. It's not opinion. I thank Newton for it.' But they put it into their own feels."
Foley said he does not watch a lot of video of Woods' swings from when he won majors. But sometimes he watches Woods from when he was in his early teens, before we were all in awe of him, before his swing was scrutinized, before the knee surgeries, when Tiger was just a skinny, healthy kid trying to become the greatest golfer who ever lived and looking like he had a chance to do it.
"Just a genius at work," Foley said.
Can Tiger come close to being a golf genius again? The principles of impact cannot be argued, and they alone will determine if Tiger comes back — on the course, or in our minds. We will see him, as we always have, through the prism of his performance. On his 16th hole of Thursday's first round, the par-5 seventh, Tiger hit a pretty shot out of a greenside bunker. A pair of fans yelled "What a shot!" Tiger Woods ignored them and made birdie.